Tag Archives: learning analytics

Diving into the deep end without a plan⤴

from @ ammienoot.com

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Having spent the morning indulging myself in reading a bunch of blogs on the web I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I can’t really keep up, and the distance and the gap to where I am is immense. I’ve mostly been reading back through the archives of people who have been blogging for years. It’s been a really valuable exercise in better understanding the lines of thought behind what those people are writing about at the moment.

I also feel pretty dumb by comparison now.

However, it’s given me real pause for thought in terms of where I want to go with my own foray into blog-land. It wasn’t really ever a consideration to do anything but host my blog myself. I wanted the freedom to do whatever with this space, but I am still working that out. My professional identity is multi-faceted – between paid employment and volunteering work – and how much of my personal life I want to be able to share remains unclear. What I am weighing up most heavily is the implications of putting anything I write into a public space. Reading back over some other blogs there’s a really rich and varied tapestry of topics, thoughts and opinions there, but there’s also strong evidence of privilege. I can’t imagine being able to write so openly on such a wide range of topics. Don’t get me wrong, I know I have privilege of my own – first world problems and all that – but it’s still hard. Imposter syndrome is a thing. Being a woman in IT is a thing. Considering how other people in my story would feel if I wrote about them is a thing. Fundamentally I believe that anything I put out there publicly moves beyond my control immediately and even if I curate my archive over time, become a serial deleter even, it’s too late. Calculating the potential future weight of my words is a bit exhausting.

With that in mind, I’m going to try catch 2 shows in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas series (part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe). Both by colleagues of mine. See what I mean about an overwhelming abundance of smart people out there. Hopefully I’ll have some more insight.

  • Alternative facts: is the truth in the archive? (Rachel Hosker)
  • Is your online reputation hurting you? (Nicola Osborne)
  • Some blogging frustrations – and maybe an answer⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    Reading Time: 1 minute

    One of the reasons that I still default to pencil and paper for a lot of my sense-making writing is that I write my thoughts and an ongoing commentary on them at the same time. I annotate a lot. My marginalia is huge.

    I’m enjoying the blogging that I’ve been doing, but I’m not enjoying that each blog post is such a static thing once written. Actually I’m finding it pretty frustrating. I want to be able to revisit a post and annotate it with additional thoughts – to note other sources of more info, to make links to other things, or to generally add another layer of critique. I don’t want to change the post itself, just to be able to continue overlaying more thoughts to it as time passes.

    Ideally I’d like to be able to do this within WordPress itself, so that I don’t loose that stuff should an external service suddenly disappear. The layer of commentary and marginalia is as vital to me as the main body of the thing.

    I’ve had a look at inline comments on WordPress and generally solutions seem to be a reworking of the existing comments functionality on the platform – which isn’t what I want because I still want other people to be able to add comments (actually I want to be able to annotate them too – I’m greedy like that).

    So far I haven’t found a good solution, so I’ve signed up for Hypothes.is and installed the plugin on my site so that I have something at least. I’m continuing to be brave and I’ve made my annotations public so others shouldn’t need to login to see them. Let’s see how well this works…



    Some more thoughts on the NGDLE, for what it’s worth⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    There’s been a flurry of activity in the last few weeks around the NGDLE a.k.a. the acronym that won’t die. The current issue of EduCause Review is dedicated to it, and Brian Lamb and Jim Groom ride again together with their recent blog posts. I scribbled up some small thoughts of my own in June prompted by a JISC session that I was following online and since then I’ve had a little time to reflect on this new material, as well as several good conversations with people on and offline.

    The more I read, the more convinced I am that this NGDLE tale is the Emperor’s New Clothes over again. “Zen like emptiness” anyone? And Jim and Brian’s blog posts both accurately identify what risks being stolen away from us (clue: data). A colleague reminded me of the inevitability of the hype cycle and we are probably at the zenith with this particular one, about to plummet down the slope. Whilst VLE vendors double down on their current positions, and everyone else discovers that this is harder than they thought, I want to expand out on a little of my own thinking under some loosely connected headings for future posterity. We can all laugh together later…

    My own concerns are that this current vision for an NGDLE is fundamentally limited in scope and vision. That sounds quite strong, but I’m sticking with it. Until I change my mind.

    Absence of student voices

    “As part of this research effort, EDUCAUSE conducted a series of conversations with experts to gain insight into the limitations of the current tools and seek ideas for shaping new learning environments. In seven such discussions, we spoke with more than 70 educators, campus-based technologists, and developers from the private sector. Specific voices from the conversations are found in quotes throughout this paper” (1)

    This vision for next generation learning environments has from all that I can see, been conceived of by people who are probably at least one generation away from the students of today, talking about what the students of a future generation might encounter. We are all kidding ourselves if we think that our understanding of what it is to be a student today is in any way authentic. Although the report draws upon ECAR research that includes student survey data, no students appear to have been in any of the blue-skies conversational spaces. I hear a fair amount of concern about the extent to which meeting student satisfaction targets is driving the agenda on our campuses, but to exclude students from the conversation entirely introduces a heavy bias from the outset. If the intention of this vision is to provide a more learner-centred environment then the voice of the majority group of learners needs to be incorporated. We need to admit students into the conversation about the development of learning technology (and technology more generally) on our campuses. Far too often we speak for our students instead of giving them a platform to speak for themselves.

    Last September I started a major project, with a huge procurement component and we made the decision to include a student on the procurement team. I don’t mean we let some students score the supplier demos (we did that too), I mean that we had a student sitting at the negotiating table along with our senior team, meeting and quizzing each of the suppliers on equal terms. We didn’t always agree with her perspective, she didn’t always agree with ours and there were compromises all round. The overall outcome was better for her being there though. She brought the experience of being a student right now which was enlightening, and she brought an increased level of accountability to the process by not giving us an easy out. I see nothing like that in the production of this vision or in much of the subsequent analysis.

    Only what can be wired together technically

    “Finding: Interoperability is the linchpin of the NGDLE. The ability to integrate tools and exchange content and learning data enables everything else.” (1)

    I’m never going to argue against better and easier interoperability, but my overriding concern with the current definition of the NGDLE is that it fetishes technology to the exclusion of broader thinking about the digital. It is absolutely concerned only with what can be wired together at a technical level. The concept of a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment should be larger than this and admit those things online that can be wired together at a conceptual level. It should also include some conceptual space for things students use that we don’t know about or need to know about. There are significant risks here if we don’t: We will marginalize creative and valuable academic practice, including supporting risky practice, and we continue to neglect the potential to develop truly useful digital literacy skills in our students.

    One example in my own context would be the work that we do supporting the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. I defy anyone to explain to me how learning to write for Wikipedia wouldn’t be an excellent example of working in a digital learning environment (I’ll admit it’s not next generation in terms of technology, but actually that’s kind of the point that I’m trying to make) and I absolutely don’t see why we would need to hardwire Wikipedia into a learning environment beyond providing a URL and some scaffolding for the activity students are undertaking. There are valuable lessons in our Wikipedia activities about working with knowledge on the open web that include how you construct your own identity and how you negotiate and conduct yourself within a community. The ‘realness’ that our students enjoy and find motivating is in no small part bound up in the nature of what they are doing and that it lies outside the system, outside the institution in the ‘real world’.

    The open web is a thing. Our students will use services on the open web explicitly because they want to work outside of institutional systems, or because they have their own ways of working that they brought with them, or because their finances or circumstances are constrained and they’re just doing what works, or because we gave them their own domain and encouraged them to. Whilst we don’t need to know all the detail, neither should we turn a blind eye. If we admit that all these things are part of the wider NGDLE our students experience then we also have an obligation to consider what kind of support and advice we can provide to help make smart and informed choices.

    Reality Check: Because Maintenance

    Educause Review calls for us to be the architects of the NGDLE. I am one of those architects – I have 20+ years of experience building enormous complex systems that integrate things (distributed EPOS systems; enterprise portals; identity and access management systems; edTech). It’s hard, and once you’ve done it is when the real work begins. Because maintenance. Maintenance costs are a stone-cold killer. I’m not talking about the technical integrations, though that’s hard enough. I’m talking about the reality that each LEGO brick in this NGDLE architecture is a moving part (must be Technic LEGO), and they’re all moving at different speeds, shaped by different agendas, communities and commercial realities. Managing the information flow, the release schedule, the updates to training and documentation when change happens – this stuff isn’t sexy innovation, but it’s over 50% of what any team will need to do just to keep the lights on, and it’s the work that is constantly being squeezed to free up more resource for “innovation”. Remember too that our institutions are in the eye of the storm managing this complexity, because they and they alone carry all the risks around failure. When components fail, or change in ways that break workflows, the student experience suffers and our academic colleagues lives are made harder. High maintenance costs and risky student experience just isn’t something that institutions find easy to stomach.

    Talking about this makes for a rubbish conference presentation though. So we rarely do.

    Will you be ready… flickr photo by kennymatic shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

    Temporary autonomous zones

    “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” (2)

    Very little in this vision for an NGDLE deals with issues of consent and control around data and the potential for the chilling effects of increased data collection. Jim has covered this well in his blog post already, but I’d like to push this element on a little further and pick up again on some of the ideas in Amy Collier’s Digital Sanctuary blog post – particularly our habit of hoarding data. Amy highlighted my institution’s Data Protection Policy as a model of good practice, but to me it looks pretty normal. The European environment is very different and generally data protection regulation is seen a public good, rather than interference from government. In May 2018 the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect and it will persist beyond the enormous act of self-harm that is the UK Brexit. Our different data protection environment already makes life fun when negotiating with non-European vendors and I wonder about the extent to which it will influence the direction of travel of the market in the future versus the extent to which some tools and components just won’t be possible for us to use.

    “The biggest change is that institutions will be held far more accountable for the data they hold. As well as records of what personal data exist within the organisation, the GDPR requires a documented understanding of why information is held, how it is collected, when it will be deleted or anonymised, and who may gain access to it.”

    “The GDPR introduces new requirements on the way new information-handling processes and systems are developed. Data protection must be designed in from the start; systems must have default settings that protect privacy.” (3)

    I’ve also seen a flurry of tweets over the last few days espousing the benefits and values of small simple tools, which is pretty exciting. I’m particularly fond of Alan Levine and Brian Lamb’s SPLOTs (a.k.a. the acronym that defies definition) as they are both simple to use and make a positive principal out of not collecting more data than is needed. JISC also toyed with an interesting idea when they talked about the “pop-up VLE” as part of a recent co-design consultation. There seems to be real enthusiasm and creativity around these ideas at the moment, but I think I mentioned already that maintenance is a thing. In my experience the quickly hacked together doo-da that does a neat small thing at point of need has a nasty habit of becoming the thing on the server 3 years later that nobody knows about and just won’t die.

    With that in mind, I have been re-visiting Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, and whilst I probably can’t subscribe to the full breadth of his anarchist vision in my professional practice, it has got me very interested in the idea of simple, pop-up tools that gather minimal data and delete themselves.

    I’m increasingly interested in exploring the idea of an NGDLE which includes a suite of small, simple, lightly managed tools that are easy for our academic colleagues and students to pop-up an instance of and use, but which by their very nature are designed to self-destruct. They may or may not collect and share data, they may be less or more well integrated with other systems, they key thing is that they are explicitly temporary zones. Temporary could be a day, a week, a year, several years, it should be configurable, but all of these instances of tools should have an expiry date. We need to think from the very start about how to keep our environment clean and get into the habit of putting our rubbish in the bin when we are finished. I’d also be interested to see whether “ephemerality by design” changes behaviour. Hopefully I am going to have an opportunity in the next 12 months to put some of these ideas into practice within my projects…watch this space

    Linkity Links

    1. The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment, EDUCAUSE ELI (2015)
    2. A year to get your act together: how universities and colleges should be preparing for new data regulations, JISC (2017)

    On the sublime⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    Sunday was clear and fair and so I put on my walking shoes and drove out into the Pentland hills to finally visit Little Sparta.

    I think this is as close to the sublime as I have ever come. The perfect fusion of landscape, art, poetry. The perfect fusion of intentional whimsy, revolution, resistance.

    I now require to loosen my corset and stays, and recline in the drawing room to recover.

    Little Sparta

    Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar


    Why I got upset about a fridge…⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    I got a bit rage filled today at the following post on Twitter and it’s worth thinking a little more about why I had such a strong reaction to it. Apart from the fact that I am deeply offended by the idea that a fridge can run my life better than I can, there was something more…

    I think it goes something like this:

    Then this kind of nonsense is not anywhere close to the kinds of solutions our world needs.

    In my spare time…⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    Anyone who follows my Twitter feed will have seen amongst the random detritus quite a few posts about art or craft of varying sorts. I have quite wide ranging and eclectic tastes but one of my abiding interests is the Arts and Crafts movement – both the aesthetics and the politics. If you find yourself in Edinburgh during August this year I might therefore recommend that you visit one of the following free events that happen as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe:

    In 1993 I dragged my then boyfriend along to an exhibition of work by an Irish born arts and crafts artist Phoebe Anna Traquair at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. I wasn’t well enough off to afford the exhibition catalogue, but a year later I was working for the city tourist board and in a cupboard were some old exhibition posters, including one for the Phoebe Traquair exhibition and I was able to save it from the bins. That poster graced various walls over the years, including my little flat and a couple of workplaces.

    In around 1995 or 1996 I think I went to a cabaret evening at what was Cafe Grafitti – a club held in an old church on Mansfield Place, on the edge of the Edinburgh New Town. It was very badly lit, but I remember seeing glimpses of enormous gilded Phoebe Traquair murals high up on the walls. There was a lot of candlelight for atmosphere and of course indoor smoking, because this was still the 1990s. I saw performers from Cirque du Soleil dance on a ribbon strung from 60 feet up in the chancel, and it took my breath away.

    In 2000 I went to visit the Song School at St Mary’s Cathedral as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to see their Phoebe Traquair murals. After the tour we were pointed towards a modest exhibition stand with photos of more incredibly beautiful murals, in heartbreakingly poor condition. A couple of volunteers from the Friends of Mansfield Place Church charity were waiting nearby, ready to explain the precarious position the building and it’s murals had been in. I sympathised, and never told them about that night in Cafe Graffitti when I might have contributed to the cigarette smoke in the air.

    Thankfully with assistance from the City Council the building had just been purchased by the Mansfield Traquair Trust, and they were about to embark upon a multi-million pound project to restore the fabric of the building and convert it into an events and office space fit for modern use, followed by another multi-million pound project to conserve and restore the murals. The tenants for the building once complete would be SCVO – the umbrella organisation for the third sector in Scotland. The Friends were seeking volunteers to join and help prepare for the re-opening of the building. I was hooked. I still remember being given a tour by torchlight of the building just before work started. Again there were the tantalising glimpses of the murals up high, though this time they were mostly covered in protective panels to protect them from the imminent building work.

    It will be 17 years this August since I joined the Friends, and I have served on their committee for most of that time. Each year I register our entry for the Festival Fringe and help my colleagues prepare to guide yet more visitors around this building that we all love so much. It’s now nearly 9 years since I was invited to join the Board of Trustees of the Mansfield Traquair Trust, and I am pleased to say I have also now managed to save up enough pennies to buy my own copy of the 1993 exhibition catalogue.

    If you find yourself at a loose end in August, do visit. I promise it will take your breath away, and if you’re lucky, I may be your tour guide at Mansfield Traquair.

    A little light indulgence⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    I had a holiday recently, and some parts of it really were actually a holiday. Each year I take a bit of time off-grid in the French countryside. No TV, no wi-fi. Right out in farming country where I have as much connectivity as I can get with a smartphone (normally a weak 3G signal from the driveway).

    Most years I spend a good portion of my time knocking an acre of garden into shape, but thanks to some brutal measures I took last year, there was less that absolutely needed doing this year.

    I decided that as well as some light gardening duties (and the hunt for the mystery septic tank – which is a whole *other* story) I would make a concerted effort to indulge myself in things I find myself having less time for than I’d like. I’d already loaded up on reading material via a visit to Lighthouse Books before I went, and I had my trusty notebook and pencil for writing (I am decidedly old school in my writing – this blogging thing is another concerted effort to try something different). However I thought my patchy connectivity was probably still good enough that that I’d also try complete the DS106 Daily Create each day I was away. I was interested in how far I could get working within the constraint of only using a smartphone (I have some pretty long-standing skills with Photoshop and the like on a full-fat computer). The first hurdle I hit was that I needed a couple of additional apps within the first few days and I didn’t have a good enough signal to download them. Cue a visit to the local village where there is a more reliable signal. Conveniently there is also a most excellent family boulangerie et patisserie. Oops.

    Les religueses

    (This is a “religieuse” – and I love these so much I taught myself to make them a few years ago)

    During June there was a #30dayTDC challenge running and within the first few days of holiday I was having so much fun that I decided to backtrack and try complete the whole month. A few things contributed to the fun and because there is literally NOTHING more fun than a list, here is what they were:

    • Other people. The feedback, likes and tweets from others doing the challenges were lovely, particularly from those who are hardcore devotees. So welcoming. The infamous Talky Tina appeared too. She is lovely and not at all a word I am not supposed to use. Being lovely she also offered a special badge for everyone who completed the full 30 days of challenges. Challenge accepted!
    • The challenges. Not only were the challenges fun to do, but many of them asked us to explore online tools or sites that I hadn’t encountered before.
    • Different but related perspectives. Being on holiday my days were less structured. Having the challenge to do each day was strangely grounding. Also having made a concerted effort to indulge myself in creativity of many kinds (photo exhibitions, giant automata, gardening, crafting, cooking, writing) I found they fit well and I could use things I was already creating.

    My staple apps for photo-editing (beyond the built in editing) have been Snapseed and PS Express, but through this challenge I’ve expanded my toolkit of apps. I’ve tried quite a few different things and whittled back down to the following list. Photoshop Mix and Pixlr are pretty much the core of what I have come to rely on, with others mixed in as required.

    • Photoshop Mix – cutout / blend / layout. Great support for layers.
    • Pixlr – effects and text overlay on images
    • Photo Lab – massive range of filter effects including the ones I used the ‘cartoon’ myself.
    • Comic Life – making comic strips. I’ve also found this useful for quick assembly of photo montages where I don’t want a template.
    • 5SGif – making / editing animated GIFs – often used in conjunction with Photoshop Mix.
    • Skitch – quick and simple drawing on photos
    • Brushes Redux – freehand drawing, plus ability to import photos and draw on. Good support for layers.
    • SketchBook – simple drawing tools. In time I suspect I might end up using Brushes Redux instead, but the simplicity of this works well for me now.

    In the end I did manage to complete the #30dayTDC. Some are feeble, some are ropey and some I am quite pleased with. Since I returned home and to work it’s been harder to keep doing them, but I’m going to continue to try for a couple a week, just to keep my hand in.

    Everything is awesome⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    Quite a lot of my job these days involves doing things to enable other people – securing funding for things, socialising ideas, helping people talk to each other. Other people seem to do a lot more of the fun stuff and I spend a lot of time doing paperwork.

    Some days though I have a few moments to look around and it’s quite humbling and pretty awesome.

    Yesterday I went looking for a colleague and bumped into Karoline, who is working as a summer intern. Karoline is a Pyschology student and was part of the procurement team that helped choose our new lecture recording system. The experience of asking vendors to directly answer questions from a student requires it’s own seperate blog post, but suffice to say that Karoline so impressed us all with her commitment and enthusiasm that we offered her a summer internship to work with us on the rollout of lecture recording. It was inconceivable not to really – she is truly one of the team. One of the things she is working on is a series of videos offering different perspectives on recording lectures. The first is from her giving a student view.

    The video was recorded by another talented colleague – Andy Todd – using some of the DIY Film School kit that we bought last year. Karoline told me yesterday how she’d now used the kit to film one of her lecturers and was now going to learn to edit video and make a similar piece from the academic perspective. I can see in our media repository that she’s done it already. And it’s good. Really good.

    I also spent time yesterday down at Kings Buildings talking with colleagues about plans for Ada Lovelace Day 2017. Our School of Chemistry are very interested in taking a lead on the day, in no small part thanks to Dr Michael Seery (all round good egg whom we have infected with Wikipedia madness). Myself, Ewan and Stewart spent time with Michael and a group of really inspiring post-grad students discussing ideas for talks and activities for the day, and how we go about preparing for a Wikipedia edithathon. That was yesterday afternoon. Ewan has forwarded me on an email from one of them today brimming with ideas and enthusiasm and offering more than we could ask for.

    Today I spent some rare and precious time doing fun stuff – a Wikidata workshop with Lea Lacroix that Ewan had organised. I got a chance to hang out for a short while with Lorna, Phil and Sara and talk about the potential for using Wikidata to explore a variety of digital literacy issues and concepts. I spent some more time learning to write SPARQL queries and visualise the data, and have made notes on how we might run our own Wikidata training sessions.

    I could write more about how I was looking in our media repository and saw some of the work that another student intern has been doing to better curate the content in there (because in our first year our University community have uploaded over 16,000 videos!!!). Or I could talk about how I caught the tail end of one of my team giving a presentation at the end of a leadership course they did and their answers to the questions asked made me feel humble and privileged all over again to work with great people. But I think I’m gushing now, so I’ll stop.

    When does it stop being about us?⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    I’ve got several half formed posts lurking on this topic and since they never seem to reach the light of day I’m going to just dash this one out now. I’m sure other smarter people than me have already thought about this and I am as ever late to the party or have it totally backwards and wrong. Such is life.

    I may also come back and revise this as it feels a bit ropey still.

    Thought: Why does so much of what I read assume that the next generation of digital learning environments will still be provided by educational institutions to students?

    I’ve been convinced by the arguments for student owned and operated domains for some time (and I will make this part of our edtech service portfolio at work if it kills me!) and when I spotted this tweet by my lovely colleague in Paris from the EUNIS conference I couldn’t help think this was a missing component in the model that SURFnet were experimenting with. It seemed pretty obvious to me that there should be easy to operate end points of some description to allow students to integrate their stuff where they want / need to.

    However, I had a little lightbulb moment when I read this tweet (from recent JISC day on exploring the NGDLE).

    Students are already working elsewhere. They’ve already built their own NGDLE as-needed. Without us. Granted they’re not working in their own spaces and there’s a ton we could do in terms of helping people make smart choices about privacy, data and ethics, but the core point remains. (1)

    So whilst I think that the loose, federated eco-system of tools that NDGLE reports all suggest is probably the way forward, I also think a conceptual model for the NGDLE must recognise whatever the heck students want to use, integrated / not integrated / not visible at all. We need a big blob on the diagram marked “stuff students do that we don’t know about” and we need to be okay with that. We need to say we positively promote that if we are at all sincere about supporting digital literacies.

    If we provide institutional solutions like Office365 maybe we should think twice about whether we really need to integrate them? To what extent will bringing tools into more formal / integrated / tracked systems just shift activity out into other spaces anyway?

    We should strip back our ambitions and scale, and consider what elements it’s really important that institutions do provide, and consider the extent to which our drive for frictionless integration in the NGDLE is really about usability or where it’s actually about surveillance.

    (1) there’s a whole other post in here about developing this kind of data-savvy literacy.

    I was a Southside gal⤴

    from @ ammienoot.com

    Trigger warning: This post contains heartfelt love for publically funded libraries and evidence of the wonderful things in their collections (maps, lots of maps), available to use under open licenses because they belong to all of us. If this upsets you don’t read on. Also you are dead inside.

    I lived in the heart of Edinburgh for 10 years and my happy home during these years was my flat in the Southside. I love that flat. It was the first place that was truly mine, and I had the privilege of sharing it with some of the best human beings I have ever known (I’m looking at you J & P). There are many many stories bound up in that place.

    I love the quirky, strange and odd, and one of the things that appealled about my little flat was that it was in one of those weird Edinburgh streets – the kind that they put on the taxi-driver exam – the kind that no delivery driver can find. It was barely a street at all. One tenement block and a small community hall, with a strange tarmac area in front with a flower bed. 12 flats in the stair and 1 main door flat in total. It was a good mix of residents and people passing through too – enough that it felt like there was some community.

    I’d wondered in the past about the etymology of the street name – Spittalfield Crescent – and whether it ever had been a larger street. I knew that the tenement block was built around 1880, and that Nelson Hall Community Centre next door was built in the early 20th century. I also know that Spitalfields in London is thought to derive it’s name from a nearby hospital, and so I wondered if the same might be true here (the Deaconess Hospital being just up the road).

    There has been some great work done in Edinburgh improving the quality and detail in Open Street Map, so here’s a snapshot of how things look today. Spittalfield Crescent is that little weird street on the right had side, joining St Leonard’s to Bernard Terrace.

    Open streetmap map of Spittalfield Crescent
    © OpenStreetMap contributors CC-BY-SA

    Stepping back a bit, here’s Bernard Terrace, Montague Street, and Rankeillor Street.  All in a row. Take note of these streets – and Parkside Street – you’ll need them on the older maps.

    © OpenStreetMap contributors CC-BY-SA

    The National Library of Scotland has done incredible work digisting their map collections and so I was able to cycle right back in time and see if I can work out how the street came to be, and where the name came from. The map below from 1817 shows that the road now called Dalkeith Road was called Spittle Field. I love the detail in this map, the fields and trees are simply beautiful. Mr Batchelor’s Pepperment Distillery sounds good too. At this stage this is pretty much the southern end of the city centre.

    Edinburgh : Kirkwood & Son, 1817. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Skip forward to 1821 and we have Montague Street being built to the south of “Rankillor Street”. Mr Batchelor still cranking out the Pepperment.

    Edinburgh : Kirkwood & Son, 1821. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Both of the Kirkwood maps provide quite rich information about land use and ownership. Jumping forward again to 1826 we switch over to the maps being made to support the postal service in Edinburgh. Montague Street has vanished (it’s still there – honest) and “Spittle Field” has contracted to “Spittlefield”. No Pepperment Distillery ?

    Edinburgh: Plan of Edinburgh drawn & engraved for the general post office directory by John Bartholomew, 1826. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Back to the more beautiful map making (would you look at the hatching in those fields). and we have Montague Street back again (mostly – bit messy where it joins St Leonard’s / Spittle Field – this is important – we will see this again). Looking down Spittle Field, there’s a clutch of buildings scattered along the road.

    Plan of the City of Edinburgh, including all the latest and intended improvements. P. Brown & T. Nelson, 1831 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    By 1836 the road name “Spittle Fields” is gone, and the Innocent Railway has arrived at Parkside. Rankiellour Street is still having an ongoing spelling crisis.

    Plan of Edinburgh and Leith. From the best Authorities. Engraved expressly for the Letter Carriers Directory, By W.H.Lizars, 1836. including: Map of the County of Mid-Lothian Ten miles round Edinburgh, And Leith Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Things stay pretty much the same for a few years now (or the map-makers can’t be bothered – difficult to tell). Then the Ordnance Survey arrives in 1853. This map is so fine and detailed – it’s a bit difficult to read –  I’ve provided another zoomed in view below – but you should see it for real to appreciate it for yourself (you can do this, because this is our National Library and they make these things available online for the nation – have I mentioned this already?).

    Ordnance Survey Town Plan of Edinburgh (south east part). Surveyed: 1849-53 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0


    Ordnance Survey Town Plan of Edinburgh (south east part). Surveyed: 1849-53 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Jumping forward again to 1864 we have “Rankeilor Street” still not entirely sure how it’s spelled. The railway depot has expanded, and the Park Brewery has appeared, opened in 1860 by Thomas and James Usher. Their father was Andrew Usher, famous for whisky, Pear Tree House and the Usher Hall. Lutton Place, way to the south of Montague Street has been half built now too.

    Plan of Edinburgh & Leith with Suburbs, from Ordnance and Actual Surveys. Constructed for the Post Office Directory. By John Bartholomew, F.R.G.S. 1864 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Hop, skip and jump forwards just a few years to 1867 and we have Bernard Terrace appearing. Like Montague Street it’s not fully formed – a sort of half street with a random collection of buildings at the end.

    Plan of Edinburgh & Leith with Suburbs, from Ordnance and Actual Surveys. Constructed for the Post Office Directory. By John Bartholomew, F.R.G.S. 1867 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    In 1877 we have another one of the absolutely beautiful and detailed Ordnance Survey maps, and this is where my home appears. 1877.

    Ordnance Survey Town Plan of Edinburgh (south east part) Surveyed: 1876-77 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Just there on the end of the block, again not really fully formed. Barely a street at all. You can see the path from the back of the block out into the shared walled garden at the back of the block too. It’s still like that today.

    Ordnance Survey Town Plan of Edinburgh (south east part) Surveyed: 1876-77 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    And now in 1893 the street has a marked name. 57 years after “Spittle Field” dropped off the maps the name has clung on to a single tenement block. Rankeillor Street also seems to have calmed down and settled into a form of letters which persists to this day.

    Bartholomew’s Plan of the City of Edinburgh with Leith & Suburbs, reduced from the Ordnance Survey, 1893. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

    The final acts in this story are the building of Nelson Hall in 1913 and finally in the mid 1930’s the joining up of St Leonard’s and Bernard Terrace.

    Nelson Hall was shuttered and unused for all the time that I lived there. It was apparently part of the legacy of the Nelsons printing firm (Wikipedia article too). Look back at the Ordnance Survey map from 1877 and you can see a printing works at Hope Park. Shortly after in 1878 the works burned to the ground and the firm rebuilt at Parkside. Nelson Hall was built with the legacy of Thomas Nelson II as a place  “to which persons of the working class and others can go to sit, read, write, converse and otherwise occupy themselves”. At the time John Buchan was a partner in the firm, and a year later in 1914 dedicated the Thirty Nine Steps to Thomas Nelson III.

    And I thought I got to know the place pretty well when I lived there…

    Post Office plan of Edinburgh and Leith, constructed from Ordnance and Actual Surveys By John Bartholomew F.R.G.S. 1937-1939 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0