Tag Archives: General

We need to talk about “normal”⤴


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

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


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 . . .


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


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. 

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


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.  

Supporting an open covid pledge for education⤴


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.

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


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

The lockdown diaries week 16: the end of this phase⤴


Another week of easing out of lock down and the death toll  in the UK as I write is 44,819. The death rate is slowly going down, but there were still over 800 deaths this week in the UK. Should I get some comfort that in Scotland there haven’t been any COVID 19 related deaths for 3 days and the rate has been in single figures for the past week or so? I am glad of the divergence in approach, particularly around wearing of masks in shops and enclosed areas, of the all the devolved governments. Though it would seem that is not so popular in Westminster.

Still the easing of lock down continues across the UK. The UK government seems to be taking an out of sight out of mind attitude to it now. Let’s move along to Brexit, nothing to see here anymore around COVID 19 . . .

I have been writing this series for the past 15 weeks, so 10, 774 words later I think this will be the last one, well in this phase anyway. When lockdown started I was, like everyone, anxious, confused, unclear about what it would actually mean. Would I ever work again? I have found writing the weekly posts cathartic and a really useful process for self care. They have helped me focus and balance the at times, hopelessness I have felt about the bigger picture of events around me with my smaller world of work.

Working for myself I don’t have any formal support mechanisms, so being able to reflect on what I have been doing (and thanks to everyone who has and is still giving me work or has asked me to speak at events over the past 4 months) has really helped my mental wellbeing and self care. Care has been so central to the whole lockdown – care for others, for ourselves, I hope that doesn’t get lost as we move forward. Caring for each other and ourselves is going to be so crucial moving forward. We need to make sure we continue to make time to care.

I’m not the best writer in the world, but over the years blogging has become a habitual process for me. I was worried at the start of lockdown that what was happening was so overwhelming it would put me in a state of writing paralysis. I worried about how could I possibly find any words when the world was changing so rapidly, and I would lose another part of my normality. Just taking an hour every Sunday afternoon to write a post provided a focus for writing and keep my blogging habit in tact.

So as I start to do a bit more – haircut is next week – visit to my Mum the week after and a bit of a holiday, I’ll start moving to my phase 2 of lockdown writing. Until then, dear reader, stay safe, and I’ll leave you with a little work cloud of the past 16 weeks.

word cloud of my lockdown diaries

The lockdown diaries week 15: still not normal . . .⤴


Another week of easing out of lock down and the death toll  in the UK as I write is 44,198.  There are still over 100 people dying everyday in the UK from COVID-19, this is not over. Lock down restrictions are lifting across the UK and different paces.  Non essential shops opened this week in Scotland. I found seeing shops open a heartening sign but to be honest it also made me feel a bit uneasy. From next Friday it will be mandatory to wear face coverings/masks in shops in Scotland.  Again, I am fine with that, but I do have worries about the invincibility behaviour some people seem to demonstrate when wearing masks – no need for physical distancing, no need for hand sanitizer, or washing hands.

The death rate in Scotland is now very low, and the impact in divergence of approach from the UK government is becoming more apparent. I just hope that the  rush to “get back to normal”, economic factors will be prioritised over health priorities.

As we get back to some sort of normal, I have become quite nostalgic for some of the elements of the early days of lockdown – little or no traffic, saying hello to people you passed as you were out for your daily walk on the canal, and people smiling and saying hello back with that knowing understanding and shared relief of being allowed to be outside for a bit.   Not being able to go anywhere, see anyone was easier in some ways easier than working out who and when you can see now . . .

Overall though, this has been quite a good week for me work wise.  I gave a keynote at the London Met Teaching and Learning Conference on Tuesday. It built on some of the ideas I presented earlier this year at the GMIT event, particularly around notions of “being and belonging” at university (both physically and digitally) for students and staff. This is going to be quite different as we move forward, and we really need to make sure we are giving our students and staff plenty of time to become confident and comfortable with the spaces and places they will be “be” at university from now on.

The first local lockdown in Leicester  this week also highlighted the need for flexibility. Staff and students could be off campus again at very short notice, so we need to be prepared for that and really seriously think about design and refocus on our current context, notions of care, inclusion, accessibility as we expand our notions of curriculum development and day to day delivery.

It’s always nice to get positive feedback from any speaking event, but I was thrilled to get almost instant positive feedback afterwards, and I’m looking forward to speaking with a smaller group of colleagues from there later in the month.

On Friday I was part of a panel in SEDA webinar about the challenges and opportunities facing educational development and learning technology just now.  Here’s what I hoped to say.  One of my fellow panelists, Teresa McKinnon wrote a really powerful reflection of her experience with a slight tech glitch, and the need for ensuring we care for our students when they are using technology, give them lots of opportunities to build up their confidence and get things wrong and cope with with in low stakes activities before getting them to do high stakes activities.  We need to keep reminding ourselves that whilst a lot of us have been having zoom-tactic times over the past few months, not everyone has, and using any kind of technology in an educational context changes everything.

What the future of our new normal will be in education is still up for grabs. I can recommend this paper by Eamon Costello and colleagues, a re-imagining of how things might turn out.  I was thrilled to see this published, and also to be given such a lovely acknowledgement – I am seriously considering changed my bio to “Thought-smith Sheila-who-sees-MacNeill

I feel that the lockdown context is changing too, so this might be the last in this series of posts. Maybe I’ll do a final reflection next week. Until then dear reader, stay safe. I’ll leave you with a song that might be one of my favourites over the past few months.

The straight lines or the asterix: some thoughts on time, space and place⤴


On Friday 3 July I was delighted to be a part of the panel in the second of an occasional series of webinars hosted by SEDA. Theme of the webinar was educational technology and educational development:challenges and opportunities. More information and a recording of the session is available here. Many thanks to SEDA for hosting the session, to all my fellow presenters and everyone who attended and engaged so readily and thoughfully with all of my fellow speakers.

Speakers were given 5 minutes to share their views, which is not very long. I perhaps rather foolishly said that I would look at some of the broader issues I feel that everyone, not just educational developers and learning learning technologists, need to be giving really serious consideration to right now – time, space and place. It’s hard to to do justice to those themes in 5 hours let alone 5 minutes, so below is what I hoped to say – some of it I had to cut due to time. It should take less than 5 minutes to read.

I have the pleasure of being first to speak this afternoon, so please bear with me, and indulge me as I go backwards to think about how we go forward in relation to what I feel are our most pressing challenges – time, space and place.

Now the past few months have indeed been strange times – in all aspects of our life, not just in educational development. With lockdown everyone has forced to work at home – with the rest of our families.  Our traditional spaces, places and times of work were taken away from us as quite short notice, and it’s still unclear when and how we will get back to them. In the short to medium term if, and when we do, it will be in quite different contexts and times.

Time is always an issue in educational development – there’s just never enough time to try something new, to find out how to do that thing in the VLE,  to integrate more active learning, peer assessment, whatever . . . But over the past 3 months people have had to find the time to do all sorts of things, particularly with technology that they previously never had the time for before. That has meant moving into new and not so new spaces and places that many had previously never been too.

One of the ways I have been spending my time during lockdown is listening to more radio, podcasts and radio theatre, and one of the best things I have experienced is a play called Adventures with the Painted People (by David Greig) part of a series of works called Culture in Quarantine, from the BBC.

It’s set at the time of the Roman invasion/incursion in Scotland,  and it’s set in the village of Kenmore. It is a basically a two hander between Eithne, the village witch, and a Roman official and wannabe poet,  Lucius. who Eithne has got some local lads to capture.  Eithne wants to find more about the Romans and much of the play is centred around the differences between their two cultures.

One of the things that strikes Eithne about the Romans is their apparent obsession with straight lines, she says quite early on in the play

“ the world’s not straight, it wiggles”  When I heard that, I thought that is so true – how wiggly has our world been of late?

Lucius tries to explain history to Eithne, a concept that is quite alien to her.  To explain he draws a line, a time line, marking events. In response she draws her version of time and says  “time looks like this”, to which Lucius says, equally baffled  “that’s an asterix”  and then Eithne replies

 “everything that has ever been leads inevitably to one place – here and now”

Now this little exchange really resonated with me and has stayed in my mind since I heard it. Over the lockdown my notions of time have really changed – and I know I’m not alone. March seems, not like a couple of months ago but at times like years ago. I feel like I flit from one thing to another – and the connections between space, place and time have become far more fluid.

So as we go forward we really need to give far more serious consideration to notions of time and move away from our “straight lines’’  – of the default 1 hour allocated time slots, the dominant line from 9-5. 

Now if we were Pictish witches like Eithne, we would be able to free our minds and swim through rivers or fly over mountains to do that, but as we’re not we do need to look to technology help us do that. To help us find and understand the intersections between time, space and place, but most importantly to help us focus on people on connecting and sustaining our emerging hybrid communities of learning.  

I think we don’t  want to get obsessed with tech but I think moving forward, taking some time to reflect on how, where and when our staff and students are using and moving between spaces and places, both physical and digital, is going to be really important to help us rearticulate what the student experience (and ergo the teaching experience) is evolving into.

Maybe we should start to think about how to allow for digital desire trails or elephant paths to emerge. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, (and I always think of the wonderful Kate Bowles when I talk about them as she introduced their actual name to me)  desire paths or elephant trails, are those not hand- made but foot or boot- made paths you see that cut across the formal pavements or paths around green spaces on campus or actually around any building complex with green space -even parks. Are their digital equivalents?

But the straight lines can’t be kept at bay for long. The edtech companies, the bigger powers that surround us, that fund us, they want the straight lines – they can’t cope with the wiggles. The want to give us neat, ordered straight lines – to create new narratives, to help us fix and bring about our new normal. But going back to Eithne, she says history is our stories, our songs, it is all around us, constantly evolving.

We need to be sharing our stories, singing our songs more than ever and I know that many people are researching experiences of staff  and students during lockdown we need to be sharing the data from these projects as openly as possible so we can learn together, and evolve our practice.

So let’s look to the asterix not the straight line, and find ways to share our stories, explore new desire paths that allow us and our students to move in and around  spaces and places at times that work for all of us. Let’s  focus on our communities, and finding the ways  that lead us all  to our here and now, wherever and whenever that may be.

The lock down diaries week 14: endings and shoots of new beginnings⤴


Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 43,514, keeping the UK firmly in the top 3 highest death tolls in the world.  I take some small comfort that the death rate in Scotland is steadily lowering. We’ve had no days for several days now. It is all so fragile and temporary.  

The moves the ease lock down continue, and whilst I am stupidly happy about the announcement that hairdressers in Scotland can open from 15th July, the crowds on beaches, the police closing parks very close to where I live do worry me.  

How can we move out of lockdown and not raise infection and death rates? Local lockdowns are already on the way.  Perhaps there is just an overwhelming denial that getting back to any sense of “normal” is ever going to happen.  However, I guess we can’t all stay on lock down forever so we have to try to tentatively sow some shoots of movement and dealing with the realities of physical distancing at scale.

Meanwhile, back in my little bubble the past week has included a bit of a milestone.  The first part of the week was very ALT focused with the ALT Scotland annual (online) gathering on Monday. Around 70 colleagues from across all sectors of Scottish education joined the meeting. Once again it was so inspiring to see the amount of sharing of practice and ideas across the sector.  

Then on Wednesday there was the AGM, again online – but actually this might be a more effective way to run the AGMs.  Huge congratulations to Teresa McKinnon who received an Honorary Lifetime Membership Award during the meeting. Teresa in my mind really is the embodiment of ALT.  And of course the AGM brought my term as Chair of the Association to end (more about how I feel about this here).  I was really touched by the digital crest that I was presented with too.

I’ll still be an active member of the ALT community, and of course have a bit more time for other things – like my consultancy – so if you need and support with online/digital learning just drop me a line!  

So far this year work has been fine for me but what will happen in the next 6 months who knows.  It was good to read Phil Barker’s post where he celebrates 3 years of the consultancy life and a great summary of what is happening just now in the HE sector .  Hopefully I’ll still be here in another 2 years. 

Sherri Spelic wrote a really powerful post earlier in the week about history. How easy it is to avoid, but how it won’t hide and eventually we all need to embrace it, and understand our place in it.  I read that on Monday, Windrush Day, a day to celebrate people from the Caribbean who were invited to the UK in the 1950s.  There is still a shameful legacy of how many of these people have been treated by the UK state, of how the recommendations from the official enquiry are still to be implemented.

This is all part of my history, my present, my future. Reading White Fragility is helping me to make sense of my inner conflicts around this.  I was brought up in a very small, very white community on the west coast of Scotland. Different races were few and far between. Racism was however hidden in plain sight everywhere. Embraced in the normality of language and knowing looks around “them” and “people like that”.  

I did find out this week that I do have an ancestor who went to America and was hung for freeing slaves. How he ended up in a position to own let alone free slaves I need to find out more about – this may well be a family myth. 

We are of course living through a really significant period of history. Despite the multiple opportunities for multiple narratives to be created and shared, there are still dominant narratives, particularly around education that need to be addressed notleast around the role of technology and technology providers.

Anne-Marie Scott has written an excellent post on some of the recent “discussions” around online proctoring and the need for academic integrity. Whilst universities are dealing with the financial impact of COVID-19, and many colleagues are rightly worried about their jobs, there is still money to be made in education. There is a huge amount of data waiting to be mined and exploited. Just think how much data Zoom now has about the education sector, and actually all of us.  

With reduced funding from central government more attention needs to be focused on the tech companies and funders who are all going provide solutions for “the future”.  Angel investors are ready to swoop – it’s interesting to see this partnership. I have a feeling that ed-tech and investment companies’ “new normal” is much the same as their “old normal”, And, of course that is always about the money, not of fundamentally changing access and equity to education – ultimately that doesn’t pay. 

Until next week, dear read, stay safe.