Author Archives: howsheilaseesIT

#WalkCreate: a different view of a research project⤴

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I try to keep both sides of my professional practice separate, but there are inevitable intersection points. This is post is one of those. As you know, dear reader, during lock down last year, walking became a really important part of daily life. Partly because it was the only thing you could do, particularly in the first lock down. Making time to get away from the screen and get outside became increasingly important to well being too.

Walking has always been a part of my daily routine. I’ve always tried to walk to as many places as possible and not use a car or public transport. But it did take on even more significance during lock down, and my daily walks along the Forth and Clyde Canal where I live inspired an unexpected and enriching source of inspiration for my artistic practice. I created a couple of digital stories about it last year – another intersection point

Walking Publics/Walking Arts  is  a  research project  funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council  exploring the potential of the arts to sustain, encourage and more equitably support walking during and recovering from a pandemic at Glasgow University. Part of the research is “to understand how artists from across the UK have used walking as part of their artistic practice, adapting existing work or using walking as a resource for the first time during COVID-19. What can we learn from artists and how can their expertise be shared to support more people, and more diverse people, to enjoy walking?

I participated in a short survey for artists and I’m delighted that the project has created an online gallery showcasing the varied responses the project has received. It’s been refreshing to be involved in the “other side” of research, and there a few more things that the team have been in touch with me about too which is quite exciting too – great to be asked about a different type of citation!

It’s a really fascinating project and well worth checking out the online gallery and the rest of the project website too. Walking is so important for well being that we need to continue to explore its impact, and also not allow ourselves to get out of the habit of walking as we transition from lock down to whatever this “new normal/flexible working” scenario is.

Quality, nudges and the need for IRL experiences⤴

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Warning, this post might not make much sense – no change there I hear you mutter, dear reader. Anyway there is something that has been niggling at the back of my mind for quite a while. It’s edging closer to the front, but I can’t quite articulate it yet. But I think I’m getting closer.

Like many, I have been equally dismayed/saddened/shouting at the radio/paper/tv irately, at at some of the wider narratives around universities during lockdown and now in this not quite post pandemic, not quite “new normal” phase we are in just now.

Last week Simon Horrocks posed this valid question in response to a tweet from an MP questioning why all universities weren’t providing “quality education”

There seems to be a very common misconception that “quality education ” equates with face to face teaching, large lectures and of course end of year exams. Of course this isn’t always the case.

I have had huge sympathy with students over the past 18 months. They have had to cope with so much. There is no doubt that their educational and wider life experience has been disrupted. I also have huge sympathy with lecturers, researchers and all university support staff for much the same reasons.

There is no doubt that everyone wants to get back on campus. That is now happening to some extent in most unis. In the work I have been involved in over the summer with staff and students in the UK and Ireland, there has been a clear desire to be together again. We have all missed each other. It’s also been clear that the actual teaching and learning experience over the past 18 months, has actually been ok. It’s not been perfect – but then again was it ever? The main issues for students have been around the wider student experience, the impacts of lockdown on wider society, digital poverty and mental health issues. It was hard not having anywhere to go and not being able to meet and mix with people.

On the other hand having recorded lectures and open book exams appear to have been overwhelming popular with students providing greater flexibility and accessibility, and in many cases a reduction of stress. However, students have undoubtedly missed the collective experience of being at uni IRL. They’ve missed the spaces that campuses provide for formal and informal learning. They’ve missed the reassurance of being, as one student said to me, “confused together”, informal sharing and working things out and just being together.

Staff have missed students too. They’ve missed that human connection, they missed not being able to see their students, they’ve missed not being able to “feel”the atmosphere, understanding and confusion in online teaching spaces. They want to be with their students and colleagues again IRL.

And this is where my niggle starts niggling. As well as the overwhelming political and societal pressures to get “back to normal” and that have a quite outdated vision of smiling students in huge lecture theatres, there is now even louder pressure from the ed tech sector around data, datafication and increased personalisation of learning. The personalised experience seems to have greater urgency and weight as, of course, only through “data insights” can online learning provide the personalised experience that will improve . . . well everything and save the world, blah, blah – you know the marketing speak.

The recent merger/acquisition of Blackboard is a case in point. Ben Williamson has written an excellent post on the wider data, and ethical implications of this and the power of “nudging”. Is “nudging” going to be accepted as valid pedagogical approach? Or doesn’t that matter if it provides desired “achievement” levels? And will those levels automagically equate with a “quality” learning experience?

Anyway my niggle isn’t well formed enough to answer that. But it does seem to me that there is a growing contradiction between the drive for technology being focused on personalised learning when what we all (staff and students) want and actually need, are safe, meaningful, collective in person and online learning experiences. Ideally combined with more flexible, authentic assessments that are designed to ensure knowledge and understanding are at the fore, and so don’t need invasive surveillance.

We do need to have more nuanced conversations around quality in education (not just HE), but to do that we also need ensure that there is far greater understanding in wider society about just what a contemporary university learning experience is, and can be. It doesn’t need to be about “solutions” based on data, nudges and “personalisation”. It can must be one that understands and values the power of collective learning, of communities of practice, of trust and care, and developing learners who question and critique and don’t respond to homogenised nudges in the way that algorithms expect.

Finding joy in ethics and criticality: reflections on #altc21⤴

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I have to admit I at the start of the conference, I felt pretty jaded. It’s been a long year. I haven’t had a proper break – that’s my own fault – not blaming anyone but me for that. And like everyone else I’ve had, and continue to have, my fair share of challenges this year. Another online conference wasn’t exactly filling me with eager anticipation.

There’s always something of the start of the new term feel about the ALT annual conferences, which is one of its strengths. That is also historically why it’s been a challenge for some people to attend the physical conferences. One positive thing about the move to is a lot more flexible, and accessible for many. Anyway, like I said, I wasn’t really feeling any excitement for anything at the start of the week – online or in the “real” world! I knew I would be dipping in and out of the conference due to work commitments, but as is so often the way with ALT conferences, it and more importantly the ALT community, slowly drew me in.

The keynotes were, as ever, very strong this year. Sonia Livingston’s “the datafication of education: in whose interests?”, focused on her research with in schools around the use and understanding of data (particularly children’s understanding of data and how it is used). The give and take of data in schools (and throughout education) is quite unbalanced. The ‘system’ takes data, often without any really questioning from students or wider society. Schools/colleges/universities, are generally trusted entities, with a (at least here in the UK ) a legal duty of care for their students. However, as more 3rd party systems are integrated in education, and more data is being given to companies, the balance is changing. They take the data and offer it back in ways that they choose. Sonia highlighted that adults often give children a false sense of trust about managing data, without highlighting that once a company has your data, despite GDPR, there is a lot it can do with it without you realising. Just what is Google/Zoom/Microsoft etc actually doing with all the extra data they have collected over lockdown for example? The need for data literacy for us all, not just kids, is increasingly important.

Data literacy was central to Mutale Nkonde’s keynote, based on her 2019 paper “Advancing racial literacy in tech” , Mutale expertly took us through the bias of AI and algorithms, highlighting in particular the racial basis in social platforms (Tiktok was cited here) with their implementation of data proxies for popularity, that clearly have historical racial bias “baked in”. Mutale encouraged us all to question and have more conversations about data, AI, algorithms. To participate in projects such a AI for the people which aims to develop and support the ethical use of data. Mutale also reminded us that algorithms are IP and so have commercial confidentiality on their side. Companies do not need to share the algorithms they use. I for one think that should be challenged more, particularly in education. If we use a AI or any 3rd party company and it is harvesting data, then part of the contract should be full disclosure around how that data is being used, so that there can be informed discussions around what patterns, historical trends, etc algorithms are being built on.

Starting these conversations can be tricky. That’s where the (launched at the conference) ALT Framework for Ethical Learning Technology might come into play too. During its launch John Traxler asked if we need to decolonise educational technology. This sparked off a bit of a debate on the ALT mailing list, so I think the answer is a clear yes! Adapting the statements in the framework to questions would be a good starting point, imho around conversations about the ethics of technology, the ethical use of data, what that actually means in context.

The highlight of the conference for me was the final keynote from Lou Mycroft. Lou is one of the founders of #JoyFE. This really did bring back my #joy. I loved Lou’s explanation of: joy as an intentional practice, of the power of being affirmingly critical, but not cynical, of quiet resistance, of the joyful militancy of embracing “the power of giving away power”. I loved the wave Lou weaved ideas around leadership, around transformation being a start not an end point, of turning values into questions. For example what would assessment look like as a practice of hope? What would timetabling look like as a practice of care? I would encourage you, dear reader to watch all the keynotes, as well as the other sessions.

For me the ALT-C conferences have always been places and spaces of joy, for sharing of ideas, for getting re-energised, and also for getting confidence from the community to continue (or start) some bits of quiet resistance. Lou proposed leadership as being more about co-ordination, not control. On reflection, I think that is strength of ALT too, it can, and does provide co-ordination for the community. The range of special interest/member groups are a living example of that.

The conference also saw the launch of the ALT/ITN co production “The Future of Learning “. Lots of “shiny” tech stuff there and worth a watch not to see the future, but to see what is happening now. Not a lot of critique of technology/AI/ data so I wonder if there were to be another episode if a theme of the ethical use of technology would be apt? That would give a space for the new framework and the work of the ALT community in this area to be highlighted. It could help raise wider awareness of the need to question how, where, why, when and with/by whom data is collected and shared. That might provide a way to show some joyful resistance and coordinated leadership can allow for more equitable, ethical, caring and joyful future for learning.

Many thanks to the conference co-chairs, the conference committee, the ALT team, and everyone who participated in the conference.

ALTC delegate open badge image

“Ta da” not “to do” . . .⤴

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Warning: reading this post might cause involuntary jazz hands . ..

To take me out of my despair and anger about what is happening in the world this week (yes Texas, the US Supreme Court , Afghanistan, the omnishambles that is the UK government I mean you). I thought I’d try and focus on something that I can control and share.

In fact I’m passing this on from my good friend and former colleague Jim Emery. Jim has recently retired, and was telling me that he no longer has “to do” lists, he now has “ta da” lists. Changing the ‘o’ to ‘a’ has some subtle and and not so subtle – that’s the jazz hand bit – differences.

Starting with the subtle. Although I do like lists, sometimes they do scare me a bit too. At times it just feels like as soon as you tick/score one thing off, you have to add another one or seven. So maybe having a list that you create once you have done something – the “ta da” moment might be quite a good idea.

It seems to me that right now everyone has so much to do, that we never really take the time to appreciate what we have done. So maybe we should all build some time into our working week for a few “ta da” moments. Jazz hands are of course optional, but for me seem involuntary every time I say “ta da” outloud 😉

We need to talk about learning . . . and teaching⤴

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Photo by Cody Engel on Unsplash

Throughout the pandemic I, like many of my peers, have been worried by the overriding narratives around education, particularly HE, that have (and still are) being perpetuated by the media and certain parts of government about education. Debbie McVitty has written an excellent piece on WonkHE about this, and the need for for public engagement with pedagogy.

It’s a great article and does encapsulate the issues around internal university discourse, students’ developing understanding of learning, the work and research that is part of contemporary university life and public perceptions i.e. the lecture and the exam. In the article Debbie calls for more public engagement with pedagogy . Whilst this statement from the Russell Group about blended learning is welcome, it does speak volumes that this is needed at all. And, is this engagement?

In the article Debbie goes writes:
“I see this public engagement in pedagogy work less as the responsibility of institutions and organisations than as a possible emergent area of thinking and practice.” . She goes on to say “this would require people to adopt public personas in ways that are not established at scale in the UK.

Whilst scholarship around pedagogy is now an established field, it is still quite precarious. It’s still not universal in the sector to get formal recognition and promotion based on teaching practice. Whilst the number of Chairs related to learning and teaching is increasing, many staff still face issues around getting adequate official time allocation for developing their teaching practice. So much of the engagement with pedagogy is still at an internal level, which makes wider public debate even more challenging.

However, that discussion needs to take place. Even being able suggest that maybe we shouldn’t be asking our children “what did you learn in school/college/uni today” to “how did you learn in school/college/uni today” could enrich parts of wider public discourse.

One thought did come to mind though. Maybe what we need are Professors of Public Engagement for Learning, in the same way we have those roles within science. For example Professor Hannah Fry, Professor of the Public Engagement of Science at the University of Birmingham. I know many people who would be brilliant in a role like this, who are passionate, successful, articulate and steeped in knowledge about pedagogy and are excellent communicators.

As the pandemic has highlighted there is a real need for public engagement around teaching and learning to create informed, evolving conversations around the realities contemporary education. I wonder if any Uni would be confident and forward thinking enough to do this . . .

Has Bobby just come out of the shower again?⤴

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A long time ago in a galaxy not too far away, a well know TV show was trying to figure out how to bring back a character they had killed off several series before. The (at the time) outrageous narrative device they employed was to simply have the character walk out of the shower one morning, and his wife wake up from a very strange dream . . . This was of course the return of Bobby Ewing in Dallas.

This “classic” moment of TV history has been on my mind recently. It does seem to me that as we come out of lockdown there are certain factions in the UK government, the press and across society generally, that want to have that Bobby moment. That we just forget what we have all been through over the past year and half, that we just wake up and get back to how things were before. Back to how things used to be when all was well with the world. . .


This weekend The Times had one of those click bait headlines that Simon Horrocks tweeted

Of course, the headline doesn’t really relate to the actual reality. But I (and I suspect you too, dear reader) do find this type of narrative particularly worrying. As we move back on campus having 500+ students in lecture theatres isn’t maybe not the best thing to do – not only in educational terms but for public health reasons. COVID 19 is still here, we still have really high infection rates in the UK. Not all our university age students have or will be be fully vaccinated by September. There’s also the worry around flus, colds and all the “other infections” that have been suppressed for the past year and a half as we’ve all been isolating and not gathering in large numbers. A lot of people may still have to be off campus in September.

But back to the headline. Recorded lectures are not the end of university teaching. Students love them. They have really appreciated the flexibility and accessibility they provide. They also allow a redistribution of time so face to face time can be spent in smaller tutorial/seminar groups. Contact time is really important, making it meaningful even more so. Smaller group opportunities for contact are going to be so important as everyone gets used to being together again on campus. But the image of university only being “proper” if students are in crowded lecture theatres still remains the dominant narrative.

As the Higher and A Level results (or should I say teacher assessed marks) get released across the UK this week, we now have the media (and others) bemoaning the lack of exams, the need “to get back to exams”. Again it’s as if exams are the only way to assess. I could rant and rant, but tbh I don’t have the time or energy. But I can’t help but feel we are all being duped into thinking that we have all just woken up from a bit of a strange dream and all those things we did (like open book assessments), like using the VLE, like providing greater flexibility (for students and staff) and accessibility, like really thinking about and using technology for learning and teaching will all be forgotten now as we just go back to normal. . .

In case you missed it I have managed to track down moment down (thank you Gods of the Internet)

Summer time and the living is . . .?⤴

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It feels like a while since I last wrote a blog post. I have had a few ideas floating in and out of my head. They haven’t hung around long enough to make me want to put “fingers to the keyboard”. Well, it is summer and although I haven’t had a “proper” holiday I have been taking it a bit easier this month and making the most of the sunshine. I’ve been in my own little bubble. My work life balance over July has been pretty healthy. I’ve completed some really interesting work, and have “good projects” on the go around online learning and teaching. In some ways life, although not always easy, is better than it has been. But, and there’s always a but. The pandemic is still hanging over us.

I have noticed more people almost crying out for help as they share why they are thinking of leaving social networks. I can see why – even pre pandemic Twitter was toxic. The “improvements” to the user experience, promoted tweets, ads. I find them all incredibly irritating. Just let me scroll and find the stuff I am interested in! I know I miss a lot of stuff, but I have always believed that if “it”‘ is important/relevant enough I will find out. I am lucky tho in that I have an established network and can usually find something/someone to interest/distract me. Sometimes though I am slightly disappointed if something that I think might be relevant is lost in the endless digital scroll. On the other hand I got a lot of advice about the best creams for midgie bites recently – toothpaste who knew? (thanks @davecormier).

I still feel that I do get more than enough positive exchanges/useful “stuff” on twitter to stay. I do worry though that some of the tweets from people leaving were actually more a cry for help after an incredibly stressful year for everyone. People want and need contact, support to give them a sense of self worth. I know I do.

Time for another but . . . but as we start to make plans for the new academic year I do worry that we are not going to give ourselves and our students enough time to readjust to yet another change. More importantly I worry that not enough time is going to be given to let people reflect on on the past year, and how they can use that experience moving forward.

Going back on campus is going to be exciting, stressful, tiring and unsettling. Ensuring that there is time to readjust to being with (lots) of people is going to be really important. Making time to talk about :what everyone has gone through, what they are still going through, the sense of loss that might hit people, is going to be vital. The focus on care which the pandemic highlighted will be even more important in the new academic year.


However, I fear that the desire to “get back to normal” will force people to do things too quickly. Like last year, there is still the likely hood of spikes and outbreaks of COVID when students come back on campus. Then there is “normal” start of term infections such as colds to deal with too. There might not be a lockdown in September but I think that many staff and students might end up not being able to into work/uni as they will be either be ill or stressed out or a combination of both.

Everyone adapted really quickly last year to the infamous “online pivot”. How we manage the next pivot back to the new normal is going to be even more important.

I’ll leave you with another twitter exchange and my thanks to @sumingkhoo whose kindness, wisdom and humour has been more important to me over the last year than she probably realises.


Which way now? Can we be guided by critical uncertainty? #UWLT2021⤴

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This week I was delighted to join colleagues at the University of Worcester and give the opening keynote for the learning and teaching conference. My talk built on the themes I have been thinking about and talking about this year – mainly reflecting on what being and belonging at university (for students and staff) actually is and will be, the role of critical and public pedagogy within our curriculum. COVID 19 has impacted everyone and every discipline, we should harness that as well as our students lived experiences. We need to embrace uncertainty as we move forward. Whilst it is very tempting to wish for everything to go back to ye olde golde pre pandemic on campus day, our immediate future is still quite uncertain so flexibility is going to be key. After the year we have had, If now isn’t the time to radical change then I really don’t know when is. Remembering too that radical change can be comprised of relatively small pieces too.

Before I gave my talk yesterday, I spotted an article from the Irish Times reporting on a recent speech by the Irish President (Michael Higgins). He said:

“We have an opportunity in the wake of the Covid pandemic, with all its personal, social and economic consequences, to reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge; unbiased study that can yield insights that may be applied for the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition, and enabled to address our great challenges. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be squandered.”

I wish politicians the UK were as eloquent about the role and purpose of academia in its broadest sense!

You can access my slides with feedback here, and the basic deck here ; and for the all important image to this post, I did want to reflect on how quickly language has evolved over the past 15 months. So, here is word cloud of words and phrases that are now part of the delegates everyday vocabulary. I’m sure more than a few will be familiar to you too!

A short thought about the pyschogeography of the VLE(s) in my life: #JuneEdTechChallenge⤴

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So ALT have a bit of an ed tech twitter challenge for this month with of course its own hashtag #JuneEdTechChallenge. Each day people are invited to share pictures, words anything really on a phrase, topic. For day one it its “the VLE in my life” – an endless source of discussion/debate/joy/frustration for anyone who has to use one.

I don’t have a particular VLE in my life anymore – one of the advantages of being independent. In a sense I wander around the digital landscape and work with any system that clients use. Ah, the freedom I hear you say. Well maybe not.

Today I was thinking about pyschogeography. I’ve come across this field quite late, but I am exploring it more in terms of my practice as an artist. However, as I was listening to Will Self give a short overview, I couldn’t help but think about it in terms of learning environments. One of the central notions of psychogeography is the notion of the “dérive” or the drift. The notion of one drifting around an environment, in a random, not planned way. Doing that in our physical spaces is actually quite challenging, but it’s darn near impossible to do in a digital learning environment.

Our paths and pathways are designed and structured, they impose directions, keep us enclosed, close down pathways and exit points to stop us drifting away from the platform/VLE. So whilst I may wander between different VLEs, ultimately when I am in any of them, they force me to stick to their structured paths. This reminded me of a session I was part of in OER17. I can only drift when I am in open spaces.

Probably much more thinking to do around this, but it’s all I’ve got time for today. What do you think? Do we need more drifting in our VLEs or do we need to provide as much structure as possible?

Now we are 2: settling in to working on the outside⤴

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This month marks my 2 year anniversary as and independent digital learning consultant. What with “everything” that has happened over the last year, I’m very glad that I am still here, in every sense, still managing to make a living, and still able to pursue my development as an artist.

I know everyone felt disconnected last year, but not working “in” an institution I did feel a different sense of disconnection from my peers. I felt relieved as I watch/read/listened to colleagues sharing their experiences, the additional workload, that I didn’t have those pressures to deal; as well as a huge sense of guilt about not being able to do more to help. I also had a worry that I wouldn’t have my “how I coped with the pivot” battle scars , so would maybe be seen as irrelevant, and no one would want to employ me post pandemic.

My term of office as Chair of ALT also ended last year, that was in a sense another loss for me. More a loss of structure as ALT provided me with a very regular set of meetings. After 3 years as Chair, it was time for me to go and I was more than happy to pass the baton on as they say.

Of course I had (and continue to have) a whole different set of pressures that any independent business has to deal with. My working life is always going to be precarious, but that’s my choice and I knew that when I gave up my job.

One small thing I was able to do was share some of my feelings via this blog and I was surprised and touched by the number of people who sent me messages thanking me for sharing how I was feeling and experiencing “stuff”. That helped to give me a continued sense of connection and empathy with my PLN, which when you work by yourself has an additional importance. I think we’ve all had feelings of being lost and alone over the past year but when you are “in” an institution it can be hard to talk publicly about what you are experiencing.

Overall though, I have been really lucky in being able to continue to get work that is both interesting and worthwhile. The beginning of the year was quiet, however maybe that’s just a cycle I have to get used to. I’ve also done a number of keynotes which is great, and I think being “on the outside” does provide additional ways to provoke thinking about “stuff”. Over the past year I’ve also been able to work with the wonderful Helen Beetham which has just been a joy.

So I just want to thank everyone who has invited me to speak at their conferences/events over the past year, and everyone who has and continues to employ me (new clients always welcome!), everyone who shares, comments and answers my questions here and on twitter. Your continued support is very much appreciated.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash