In his book The Content Trap, Bharat Anand claims that many businesses and educators have entirely missed the point about the digital age. Content is not king: networks are.
When printed newspapers saw their circulations fall off a cliff they bet the farm on content – more of it, and of higher quality. But, Anand argues, the loss of their position at the locus of networks – as hubs for corporate and private advertising, which moved to Facebook, Gumtree or Ebay almost overnight – was the real problem. Newspapers could have lived with a drop in circulations, but losing classifieds was the real killer.
Content is often a primary concern to many students – ‘we want more videos’, ‘what about lecture capture?’, ‘where can I download the slides?’. But is this because we’ve conditioned them to see content dissemination as the university’s main responsibility? If universities continue to focus their resources on content delivery, are they in danger of falling into the content trap?
Obviously educators still have to create or curate some content (whether that’s journal articles, textbook chapters, podcasts or videos) as the foundation for teaching. But we seem to be approaching a tipping point. The role of the (digital) university might not be developing and disseminating content, but facilitating learning networks and being able to react to what these networks are telling us.
Whisper it, but in digital education content might no longer be king.
Some people have been describing 2016 as the worst year in history. There are many reasons to mourn 2016 – from the loss of beloved icons to frankly bonkers political developments – but in my little world this has been a year of regeneration.
Firstly, I completed the MSc in digital education at Edinburgh University. Graduation was an unexpectedly joyous affair; looking up from the podium and seeing my wife and children will stay with me forever. Without getting too X Factor about it, graduation represented not just the culmination of lots of hard work but the end of a period of grieving so it felt like a watershed.
Secondly, after several frustrating years things are finally looking up at work. 2017 is going to be a challenging and fascinating year; I might not have time to post as often as I’d like to, but I’ll try to keep this blog ticking over.
In a spirit of (possibly unfounded) end-of-year optimism can I point you in the direction of the following enjoyable things, in no particular order:
James Lamb’s excellent Elernen Muzik site, which happens to include my dissertation playlist.
Sitting the PRINCE2 practitioner exam is a bit like having laser eye surgery. You know it’s going to be good for you, but it isn’t particularly pleasant at the time.
After answering 80 demanding questions in 2.5 hours, I stumbled out of the exam feeling a bit light-headed and headed straight for the pub. (Apologies to my friend Matt, who had to listen to my frantic post-exam rambling over our lunchtime pint.)
Anyway, I’m pleased to say I passed and am now a certified PRINCE2 project manager at foundation and practitioner levels.
The five-day course – taught by the very knowledgeable and infinitely patient Derek Arbuckle – was demanding but rewarding, and I was lucky to have a friendly group of fellow students. (I know people who have been in groups that are virtually silent for the entire duration.)
I’d advise anyone who manages projects to get PRINCE2 certified – and not to be put off by the gloomy forecast of 2-4 hours’ homework per night. (It was more like 1.5 hours for us; I did mine on the train.) I came out of it with some solid, common-sense project management principles that will help me set up and run projects in a methodical and professional way. And a startling array of new acronyms. And the knowledge that I don’t want to see another flowchart for quite a long time.
And so, with a few mouse-clicks on a quiet Monday evening, I’d submitted my dissertation.
Studying for an MSc in digital education alongside work and family commitments has been a challenge, and part of me felt like Jesse driving away in the finale to Breaking Bad as I clicked ‘Submit’, I shut down my computer and my wife handed me a gin and tonic.
But it’s also been such an enjoyable and fascinating two-and-a-half years that I almost don’t want it to end.
There are many people I want to say thank you to, including (in no particular order) Emer, Jen Ross, Rory Ewins, Gill Ferrell, Alick Kitchin, Dave Kelly and everyone who gave up their time to participate in my research.
I have a few more things to finish off over the next week or so, then we’re off to France for a much-needed family holiday. And after that, I’ll start thinking about what to do next.
Like many others I experienced the events of Friday 24 June 2016 as something of a watershed. Not only because the UK electorate decided to leave one of the most successful organisations for peace and prosperity in the history of humanity, but because it did so in a climate of apparently wilful misinformation.
On a personal level, I’ve felt uneasy about Facebook for a while. Like everyone I’ve had the feeling that others are having more fun than me, and have been guilty at times of paying more attention to Facebook than to the real people right in front of me. I’ve also noticed lately that Facebook encourages me to skim across the surface of a large number of friendships without really investing enough time in the people who matter to me most. But in terms of the exchanging of ideas and access to information, until recently I bought into the idea that Facebook circumvented many of the limitations, privileges and political slants of newspapers and TV, for example.*
Nevertheless, it appears that we live in a political era that is ‘post-factual’. Some figures (e.g. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage; David Cameron during Scotland’s indyref) now seem to be unburdened of their responsibility to tell the truth and are apparently free to make unfounded promises and threats with very limited consequences. How can we be living in a post-factual world when social media has made information more accessible than it’s ever been?
Firstly, I suspect that information overload is exactly the problem, and that for some people the only political messages that cut through the noise are those that resonate with them on an emotive or even visceral level. (The proliferation of conflicting reports from ‘experts’ ultimately cancels itself out, leaving only soundbites.) Secondly, I think Facebook encourages the creation of ‘filter bubbles’: micro-communities of like-minded people, who are rarely exposed to points of view that challenge their own. On Facebook I was interacting with people who already had a similar outlook on life to me – which is fine for sharing photos and funny stories, but not conducive to any kind of debate. Meanwhile, those who inhabited other social media bubbles were proposing (again, relatively unchallenged) their own extreme arguments about, for example, the perceived threat of immigration in the UK and elsewhere.
And this is where I think it gets dangerous. Whereas in the past, such people might have proposed extreme views in the company of a small number of friends, they now have access to very large communities of apparently like-minded people. This, I’d argue, normalises extreme viewpoints and leads to the perception that everyone would share your view of the world if only they had the courage to express it.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to do this, and I’m not suggesting that Facebook is responsible for Brexit in any way. But I am saying that it’s not something I want to be a part of any more, and that the energy I’ve put into Facebook has been wasted on both personal and political levels. So on Friday I deleted my account.
I’m still on Twitter – I’ve tweeted a link to this post – and I can see that this might contradict some of the sentiments I’ve expressed above. In my defence I’d say that I need to maintain a presence on Twitter for work and study purposes, I use it selectively, and I don’t share anything about politics or my family there.
I’m not under the illusion that quitting Facebook will bring about any seismic change to my life. But I could use the time I previously spent scanning my news feed to call or text a friend and ask how they’re doing, or arrange to meet up face to face. If I wanted to be politically active, then I could do so in the old-fashioned way (by handing out leaflets, talking to people or driving them to the polling station). Maybe I won’t do any of these things. Maybe in a few months I’ll succumb to curiosity and go back. But at the moment, I don’t miss Facebook at all.
*See Gillespie (2010) for a withering analysis of how tech firms hide their corporate motivations behind the language of democracy: Gillespie T. (2010) ‘The politics of “platforms”’, New Media and Society, 12 (3), pp. 347–364.
Last week it was my pleasure to take part in the Edinburgh University MSc in digital education dissertation festival, where I presented a summary of my research findings. (Updated abstract now lives here BTW.)
I found that preparing for, and taking part in, the dissertation festival helped me in a number of ways.
First of all, condensing down my argument into a few bullet points on a handful of slides really helped me focus in on what I was trying to say. There’s nothing like the thought of presenting to an (invisible and geographically dispersed, but no less ‘real’) audience to make you wonder if your definitions of key terms are discursively expansive or just hopelessly woolly.
The organisers asked us to go one step further by writing a haiku, which felt a bit like cramming a herd of elephants into a phone box. I think in my case the process was more useful than the product, but here it is anyway:
A tool or a spur;
an old tree, a new veneer.
Useful? It depends.
The second benefit was the feedback I received on my presentation, which translated into improvements to my dissertation during the editing phase – e.g. talking more directly about the importance of assumptions about exams, and providing more information about the types of online exams that participants were describing (while protecting their anonymity).
Thirdly, the other presentations from fellow students and tutors provided helpful tips about the writing process, such as the importance of structuring and signposting, not losing sight of your specific focus and stating explicitly why a quotation is important rather than letting it make your point for you.
If I was doing the presentation again I’d probably make more use of individual examples or quotations from the data to make a handful of points, rather than trying to race through everything in ten minutes. But my dissertation should be stronger for the experience of preparing and presenting my findings, and getting feedback on them.
If you’ve looked at this blog before, you’ll probably know that I’m nearing the end of the wonderful MSc in digital education at Edinburgh University. (In fact, I’m now starting to worry that I’ll have nothing to blog about once I finally graduate.)
Going back into higher education can have some unexpected effects on you, so I thought I’d share some of my own experiences here.
Doing even a small research project can change the way you look at the world. For example, one idle Saturday morning I found myself questioning the epistemological position of Dr Scott, the paleontologist in Dinosaur Train (my three-year-old’s favourite TV programme).
You find yourself revealing unexpected things to the tutors and your fellow students, the vast majority of whom you’ve never met face to face. My forum and blog postings ranged from sharing intimate details about my childhood to talking about the time I once saw a fox crossing the road.
I expected returning to education at the age of 36 to be much more intimidating than it actually was. It turns out you can get a hell of a lot more done if you’re not going out drinking three nights a week, playing football all weekend and occasionally throwing up in flower beds. (Little glimpse into my life as an undergraduate there.)
You can study almost anywhere. I read all of Audrey Watters‘ e-book while waiting in A&E for stitches in my hand after an unfortunate incident involving a bow saw and a Christmas tree.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. On several occasions I’ve terrified my boss with my (relatively) outlandish suggestions and my almost uncontrollable urge to scream ‘bullshit!’ whenever anyone says the words ‘learning styles‘.
I think I’m about two thirds of the way through writing my dissertation; not so much the home straight of my MSc in digital education, but the last lap possibly.
Writing a dissertation is an exciting, all-consuming and sometimes exhausting process. So far I’ve relied on strong coffee, Radio Soulwax Spotify playlists, the patience of my wife, and the ability of my supervisor @jar to both cut through my waffling and melt my brain with new insight.
I’m taking a first stab at writing an abstract here to try and order, summarise and simplify my thinking so far.
And if anyone out there wants to tell me it’s awesome / no bad / shite, please do so.*
Migration or transformation: perspectives on online exams in higher education
Summative assessment is not only a means of measuring student achievement but a medium through which programmes of higher education articulate what they value. However, summative assessment practices are coming under increasing pressure and traditional examinations have been criticised by some as bearing little relevance to learning. Proponents of online exams – including both (physically or digitally) proctored tests and alternative formats such as open-book, open-web exams – suggest that the use of digital technologies can help to address some of these problems. To date, two main approaches have been taken towards implementing online exams in higher education: migration (using digital technologies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of examination processes) and transformation (using digital technologies as a catalyst to transform summative assessment practice and, to an extent, education itself). Through in-depth, semi-structured interviews with university professionals responsible for setting and implementing online exams, this research attempts to increase understanding of practice within specific contexts and to raise questions that might inform future research. It highlights some possible pragmatic and theoretical shortcomings in both the migratory and transformative positions, and proposes a discursive reframing of the use of digital technologies in the context of high-stakes summative assessment.
*But if you’re going to tell me it’s shite, please be as specific as you can.
OER16 was, as you might expect, a celebration of open practice in higher education and an exploration of the potential of open culture. But openness was also problematised in useful ways here. Emma Smith described how academics can be wary of offering critical interpretations when they know their work will be publicly available; Jim Groom warned us that open educational resources are being used as political instruments in the US to justify government funding cuts; Sava Singh said platforms that claim to support openness (e.g. Twitter) are actually manifestations of prior privilege and can embed old biases.
The latter point reminded me of Gillespie (2010)’s critique of the way YouTube uses the language of ‘the platform’ to manage the tensions between its facade of civic inclusivity and its reliance on corporate revenue streams:
YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content, amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking and robust online commentary.
(Gillespie 2010, p. 352)
The tensions between ideological and economic concerns seem to be every bit as significant within higher education. Proposals to open up university content or practices often meet with befuddled looks from senior managers and the seemingly inevitable (and, frankly, spirit-crushing) question: ‘how do we monetise this?’. Universities sometimes respond to debates about openness disingenuously, by playing up to this democratising rhetoric without making openness a meaningful part of institutional culture.
Articulating the value proposition for open practice and open resources can be a challenging task, and much as I agreed with the ‘technical debt’ argument offered by Melissa Highton in her closing keynote, recent history is replete with examples of decision-makers prioritising the achievement of short-term economic goals over the avoidance of long-term liability. (Just off the top of my head, how about climate change, PPI mis-selling and Edinburgh’s PFI schools?) I’m not saying it’s right that powerful people think this way, but it does seem to be the reality in many organisations (including some universities). To me, the key question is how we challenge and influence this culture.
Having a clear, value-driven vision for openness based on ideas of sustainability, civic responsibility and social justice, as advocated by Catherine Cronin and others, represents the very best of what higher education can be (or should be). But when it comes to implementing this vision in a specific context, there are tensions at work between political values, educational aims and pragmatic concerns. These will have to be negotiated with courage and no little skill.
Gillespie, T. (2010) ‘The politics of ‘platforms’’, New Media and Society, 12 (3), pp. 347–364.
The observance of tradition is an important part of many cultures, but it can sometimes act as a powerful force against change.
In the Scottish Borders, where I grew up and have returned to fairly recently, people talk about ‘the aye been’. (Used in this way the Scots word ‘aye’ means ‘always’, so ‘aye been’ means ‘it’s always been this way’.)
‘Aye been’ means reverence towards the customs and traditions of the past, but I think it goes further than that. ‘Aye been’ is sometimes offered as an explanation for why things can’t or shouldn’t change in the future, even when these changes would arguably be beneficial or necessary. (Examples of ‘ayebeenism’ can be found in realms as disparate as ecologically sustainable farming and football coaching.) It seems to have an unquestionable, almost supernatural power over some people.
By the way I’m not saying that the Borders is the only place where such attitudes exist, in Scotland or elsewhere. But ‘aye been’ does seem to have a notable amount of discursive power there. (‘A favourite Borders phrase that encapsulates the sometimes fierce conservatism of the area’, according to one reviewer of the work of that great ayebeenist, Sir Walter Scott.)
In the research for my MSc dissertation (which is looking at online exams in higher education), one of the themes I’m noticing is people’s inclination to take certain things as a given, including the assumption that they have to maintain lines of equivalence between new and previous assessment practices. For example, they might assume that an online exam has to ask exactly the same questions as a pen-and-paper equivalent, and be subject to exactly the same conditions and regulations (e.g. controlling access to course materials or notes).
Breaking off from previous practices – particularly for something as highly visible as summative assessment – is rightly seen as a high-risk activity by universities. But if we tacitly accept the limitations of old practices by not questioning them when we develop new systems do we create them anew, thereby stunting our ambitions? Do we cheat ourselves out of future possibilities when we show too much respect for the past?