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For the last time

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 13/04/2021 - 08:46


I was considering the other day, that after a complete year of lockdown with no travel or conferences, I wonder who I have met for the last time? Over the past year I’ve seen a number of people I know take on different roles, or find the pandemic traumatic or withdraw from the worlds I occupy professionally. You get in a routine of attending the same conferences and meetings, often seeing the same people across some of these. And of course, at some point you will meet them for the last time, although you rarely know it then. But we’ve never had a global Ctrl-Alt-Delete before and when it all eventually restarts so many of us will be in different places – professionally, personally, geographically – that it won’t just be an unpausing.

And this naturally led to contemplation on what else may some of us have done for the last time? Commuting? Going to conferences at all? Ironing? Purely face to face teaching?

I have seen a fair bit of people dismissing the desire to return to normal, and I agree there are lots of elements that we used to view as normal that we now have an opportunity to rethink – international business travel, working in an office, campus based education, etc. But I also have a lot of sympathy for folks who want some return to normality. If by normal we mean kids back in school, secure(ish) employment, being able to visit family, going out with friends, attending sports/theatre/cinema, and a reduced anxiety about catching a lethal disease – generally having some sense of control over your life. It seems a bit privileged to admonish people who want to achieve these. So, yes, let’s return to that normal. But there will be aspects, large and small, that we did before lockdown that we now realise we have done for the last time. What’s yours?

What the ALT survey tells us about the online pivot

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 30/03/2021 - 12:15

The Association of Learning Technology conducts an annual survey. This is always a useful tool to track learning technologists (and their institutions) attitudes towards different technology. This year though they had a special section on Covid, and the results of that are worth noting. They provide an interesting historical snapshot, at the end of 2020. It will be informative to see how we feel about them this time next year.

Here are the key findings:

  • 87% of Members feel Learning Technology is more positively perceived.
  • Infrastructure and technology has won most investment over recruitment and CPD (with 53% reporting a reduction in permanent posts funding)
  • Learning tech budgets often increased (45%) but 41% reported no change.
  • 58% of respondents felt the changes were sustainable
  • Wellbeing has been impacted as Members have supported over 90% of provision online, although 70% responded positively to the statement “I have felt cheerful and in good spirits”
  • 67% of policies relating to use of Learning Technology have been revised, or new ones created.

There are a few interpretations and take-aways from these findings. Firstly, I think many learning technologists have felt some sense of vindication over the past year. A sort of “see, I’ve been telling you this stuff was important for years!”. Hence the finding that they feel learning technology is more positively perceived and many felt in good spirits (I’m assuming this didn’t mean gin). It might be understandable but the investment in infrastructure perhaps points to a ‘get me a technology to fix the problem’ mentality, rather than the longer term fix of increased CPD. A reduction in staff in these posts seems very counter productive. The finding that many felt this approach was sustainable I found interesting, and perhaps contrary to the view I’d formed viewing online discussion.

I think revisiting these next year will provide a good comparison. The data is openly available also, so you could use it as a comparison point for such a survey in your own institution also.

Rising – March review

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 29/03/2021 - 15:37


Highlight: In a time when fun is in short supply, it was a ball to be a guest on Terry Greene and Anne-Marie Scott’s podcast “Check the O.L.: Liner Notes from Groundbreaking Online Learning”. I discussed 1999’s Open University course, You, Your Computer and the Net (which I’ve mentioned on here several times). With apologies for my audio quality, it’s a good chat, and we each choose a song from 1999 also. As well as being an informal, friendly listen, what Terry and Anne-Marie are doing here aligns with the aim of 25 Years of Ed Tech, and the accompanying Between the Chapters podcast, namely that there is a recent history to ed tech, which is worth exploring.

Teaching: I didn’t have much to do with this, but as the nominal head of Curriculum in IET, it was great to see colleagues launch the latest microcredential. This one is Online Teaching: Accessibility and Inclusive Learning. Accessibility and inclusion is something the OU’s distance ed approach has been developed to address, with a high percentage of students declaring a disability. Now that there is an increased shift to online learning, ensuring course design meets the needs of all learners is something a lot of educators will be seeking to improve.

Theme: Now that lockdown is coming to an end – I have my first vaccination appointment, local travel restrictions have been lifted in Wales, people are talking about face to face meetings again – I am mostly filled with optimism, but there’s also this sense of being in a grey zone. Having to relearn socialisation (I mean, I was never very good anyway), getting to grips with what has changed, etc – it’s like people who got killed when we knew the war was ending or the Berlin wall was going to come down. There’s still peril in this interim period. The theme then is negotiating these end days of one regime while we’re unsure what comes next.

Lowlight: For reasons I don’t know, but which I believe to be valid, the OU had to cancel the implementation of the Associate Lecturer (what most of you know as tutors) contract. The contract has been planned for a long time, and something that the OU should be proud of – when the rest of the sector is moving towards casualisation it would put part-time tutors on a contract as permanent members of staff. For many of our tutors this means the difference between being able to get a mortgage, feeling secure and making plans. The reasons are, I think, tied up with the implementation of the necessary IT system rather than any shying away from the contract itself, and it will be implemented eventually. But after a year when all the staff at the OU have pulled together, and Associate Lecturers have provided such valuable support to students, it led to a very sudden change in feeling around the institution. This had echoes of the OU crisis of 2018 with distrust and a sense of betrayal. I don’t have any particular insight on it or any inside knowledge, but seeing this division and the sense of anger and despair amongst AL colleagues was a low point for sure. Hopefully there can be a resolution to this soon, but even if there is, trust and love take a long to build and are not an infinite resource.

Vinyl highlight: Finally the Sault albums that came out last year – Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is) – got a proper vinyl release. These are both amazing – it’s kinda greedy to release not one double album that is the best thing that year, but two. They have that quality of being both completely current and also seeming like they could have been released any time over the past 40 years.

Book: I usually opt for non-fiction but this month I have loved David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow. It’s the tale of Charlie who leaving school after his GCSEs falls in with an amateur theatre crowd, in order to pursue a relationship with a girl he meets accidentally. It is laugh out loud funny (someone should invent an acronym for that), with so many apt metaphors and similes on each page you feel rather punch drunk at the end. It also perfectly captures the sort of non-existence familiar to many of us who attended comprehensives, and had no clue what we were doing or wanted to be.

Educators are not risk averse and complacent

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 18/03/2021 - 09:29


I know the article was clickbait, but this THE piece, entitled “Risk-averse academy needs to get on board with new tech” was a classic of a sub-genre that has been around for at least 30 years. It contained all the requisite elements of the “why are educators stuck in the past (unlike me)?” articles. These are:

  • Based entirely on a small set of anecdotes – this one is based on using VR for a small group of students. Issues of scalability, access, privacy, replicability are too uncool to bother with.
  • Uncritically embedded in start-up culture and language – the “cool factor was off the charts”, “Experimenting with truly immersive VR is mind-blowing”, “A company like the Glimpse Group can create just about any scenario we can imagine”, “Lyron Bentovim, CEO of the New York-based Glimpse Group, which is a king among start-ups in the realm of VR.”
  • Sweeping generalisation – “I’ve heard time and again how university IT departments invest in technology, from software and hardware to new apps, but then grow frustrated because faculty don’t use it”. Really? I’ve heard the opposite, that educators want to use new tech but are often blocked by IT or admin.
  • Ignorance of any history – “We can’t keep teaching the same things in the same ways.” I’d suggest taking a look at maybe a recent history of ed tech to see how educators have been innovating all this time. Even the example cited (VR and AR) is being widely deployed. For example, my colleague Fridolin Wild would be surprised to hear that no-one in HE is using these technologies.
  • Education hasn’t changed in X years – “the business model of higher education hasn’t changed much over the years, even though the wider world is changing at a rapid-fire pace”. This trope is as old as the number of years for which education is deemed not to have changed. As I’ve discussed before, this is only true if you don’t look very closely, and wilfully ignore all the change.
  • Insulting other educators – this article really goes for it on this one: “faculty and administrators alike are by and large risk-averse and generally complacent”; “dear professors, why are you so hesitant to learn something new? You are educators. Don’t you also love learning? Don’t you love challenging yourself to think in new and different ways?” This is certainly a bold approach by THE to insult their core readership, with an article that basically says “why are you so shit?” (and they must take the blame here, the article will have been through an editor who could have suggested tempering the language). As Benjamin Litherland commented on Twitter:

Do all trade magazines treat the workers in that trade with this level of contempt? Is Farmers Weekly posting articles like "farmers suck, and the farmers farming the farm also suck".

— Benjamin Litherland (@DrBenLitherland) March 17, 2021
  • A focus on the elite – the author is from Fordham University, a prestigious, wealthy HEI in New York. As I’ve argued before, elitism is not innovation.
  • Over-simplification of context – the blame for a perceived lack of technology adoption is placed on the fuddy-duddy ways of educators. Apart from there being many educators who use all manner of tech in intriguing ways for the benefits of their students (maybe check out an ALT-C conference for example), there are even more who are hampered in doing so by institutional constraints. These can be excess workloads, tenure and reward structures, excessive administration, or barriers to innovation that make any attempt to play with new tech a distant dream glimpsed from under a mountain of quality assurance, business case and risk assessment forms.

I am being a bit unkind – I genuinely admire the enthusiasm of the author, and I bet the students really did enjoy it, so by all means others can learn from this experiment, I think VR has a lot to offer, even if it’s just making learning more playful and providing different experiences. And to be fair we all do know academics who don’t regard any of this digital stuff as worthwhile and can be very conservative. It is the conclusion that we should a) fully embrace start-up culture and b) that educators are incapable of innovation and using tech that grates.

Wellness washing in higher ed

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 04/03/2021 - 11:56
Created by the Historic Tale Construction Kit (thanks to Fi Daisy G for sending the link – I saw the gag on Twitter but couldn’t find the original so recreated it)

When the OU was going through its crisis in 2018, staff were suffering because of unrealistic demands, and in witnessing the institution they loved be undermined. Around this time we all received an email informing us that senior management were aware of the mental stress, and here were a bunch of resources on Resilience to help us cope. The implication of course was not that they should stop destroying the university, but that we should develop some more grit to cope with it. Let’s say it wasn’t well received.

Thankfully things at the OU have changed a lot since then and it is now a much more sympathetic environment. But this was the first time I’d experienced what might be termed “Wellness Washing”. Like greenwashing and openwashing, wellness washing is taking something that is generally perceived as good and desirable and cynically deploying it to one’s benefit.

Fast forward to the pandemic and this type of approach seems abundant in higher ed. A version of the meme I posted above did the rounds recently, but it’s about the fourth such one I’ve seen shared widely, which indicates it strikes a chord. They all suggest that higher ed doesn’t really want to grapple with the fundamental issues of mental health and wellbeing, but instead wants to use the sticking plaster of seminars and resources. Something has then been done, but you know, nothing has really been done. It seems like the Neoliberal Advice Bot is sometimes too close to the bone:

Taking a MOOC is a quick and easy way to feel better about workplace precarity #hotcryptotips

— neoliberal life advice (@lifeadvicebot) March 2, 2021

For instance, in a meeting the other day, I suggested that if we accepted staff were struggling because of the pandemic, and maybe operating at sub-optimal rate, then we could reduce the research income generation targets for this year. How everyone chuckled.

I genuinely appreciate that it’s complex, some staff still want to develop career paths and don’t want to slacken off, the institutions need to maintain finances and there are external pressures such as the REF. In addition, the wellness seminars are themselves often very useful for people, and it at least makes talking about these issues permissible. But they’re not the solution and all of us need to find creative ways to balance the different pressures on institutions and staff, otherwise I fear there may be a ‘stress debt’ which will impact later on, particularly in campus unis that have switched to online and been in emergency mode for a year. Then I fear that no amount of Wellness Wednesday emails will help.

Woolf University – whither the blockchain?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 03/03/2021 - 16:10


Some of you may remember a few excited announcements back in 2018 about Woolf University, a startup that was, and I paraphrase, going to blockchain the shit out of higher ed. The founder described it as “Uber for students, AirBnB for Professors”, thereby combining two terrible business models in one unholy mess.

David Gerard noted that by 2019 they had quietly dropped the whole blockchain tag, no longer describing themselves as The First Blockchain University. Founder Joshua Broggi had stated at the outset that “We literally could not do what we are doing without a blockchain,” so presumably it still figures in their system.

Looking at their site now, it’s hard to see what they do. They seem to offer courses from their own made up Ambrose College, and a couple of other institutions. Courses cost around $1500 each and offer personalised tuition with weekly video calls (attempting to replicate the Oxbridge seminar model). There are no student testimonials I can see. They haven’t tweeted anything since last October. In April the founder tweeted that “More than 20,000 universities have been forced online by COVID-19, and that has put Woolf in a unique position. So, after two years in development, Woolf University is now opening its platform to non-profit colleges and universities.”

I’m not sure what the ‘unique position’ is here, but it begins to look as though it may be a pivot to providing a platform for online learning rather than the world changing university model. That sounds kinda familiar from MOOC days.

Maybe Woolf are busy developing stuff and are about to launch in a new phase. I understand that this takes time and effort. But I would like to propose that when journalists run puff pieces on the latest thing that is going to kill the university, they are legally obliged to follow it up in 3 years time to see how it is all actually going. Maybe some more sober pieces might actually be useful in understanding how ed tech should, and should not, be implemented.

Welcome to dial-a-view – February review

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 01/03/2021 - 13:19

Following on from last month’s hugely successful (ie completely unread) monthly review, here is my February one using the same categories.

Highlight: Puppy! After going through the home improvement and the cutting your own hair stage, we entered the puppy stage of lockdown. Welcome Posey! Not very work related I know, but come on, it’s a puppy.

Teaching: With my colleagues I completed a 40 page document document for the Periodic Quality Review exercise at the OU, for the Open Programme which I chair. This takes place every 6 years for all qualifications. It’s a lot of work, but a good opportunity to reflect and suggest improvements. I’m always impressed by the professionalism of staff in such complex undertakings. It’s the sort of administrative task that people moan about as an example of universities spending too much money on admin, but then complain if such quality assurance isn’t undertaken.

Theme: If the January theme was ‘Pandemic fatigue’, then February was “A new hope”. It got sunny, work settled down a bit with book out of the way, there is a route hopefully out of lockdown, I got a puppy.

Lowlight: I gave one of the keynotes at the annual H818 student conference. This course is part of our MAODE, and ends with students presenting at an online conference (we were doing them before they were fashionable) about research they have undertaken on a topic of their choice. It is always a real delight and produces high quality output. The reason it was a lowlight was because this year’s was the last one – as I’ve blogged before, the MAODE was a victim of the curriculum review at the OU. It’s a shame to see such an innovative, successful course fall victim to some poor decision making, but I have been powerless to prevent it. Anyway, my thanks to Simon Ball who hosts the conference every year and the students who have made it such a success.

Vinyl highlight: I was a big fan of Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump when it came out in 2000. It was sort of a concept album about alcoholic robots and mining far off planets, but really it spoke to a feeling of technology disappointment and ennui (it’s been listed as one of the saddest albums). It was rerecorded by Jason Lytle on a wooden piano for this anniversary, and that adds a plaintive, lockdown overlay to the technology dystopia.

Book: Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad uses the history of the Green Book (the travel guide, not the crap film) to trace racial issues in the US. It’s extremely well researched, and following the annual publication of the guide is an ideal (ahem) vehicle to trace this history. Taylor makes a powerful connection to modern incarceration rates and economic red-lining. It’s a powerful, multi-faceted and intriguing take on modern US history.

The post-lockdown springback & what it means for education

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 22/02/2021 - 09:59


When we eventually limp out of lockdown, it will be interesting to see the range of reactions from everyone. I suspect there will be the full continuum of responses. Some people will have developed anxiety around others and operate largely in lockdown mode. Even if they feel ok about other people, more people will have had lifestyle revelations. The thought of commuting seems abhorrent, wearing anything but jeans and jogging bottoms feels extravagant and working in an office inefficient and constrictive. Working from home in a small-holding in Camarthenshire now seems like the dream.

But at the other end of the spectrum will be individuals who are desperate to be in proximity to others again. A crushed ride on the tube will feel life affirming and they’ll want to go to as many parties, theatres and restaurants as possible. They’ll buy 50 pairs of new shoes and adore dressing with the concept of some audience. They’ll relish the buzz and gossip of being in an office again.

And there will be everything inbetween. They are all valid responses. I think I’m towards the not-going back end. I can’t bear the thought of resuming commuting to Milton Keynes on the M4. I don’t want to be getting up at 5am to get trains to meetings in London. I’ll enjoy a couple of face to face conferences a year, but not the necessity of attending a stream of them.

Consider your own response on this range. And this applies to education also. Educators and learners will have similar attitudes. Some will want to be back on campus, in lectures and seminars, immersed in the spontaneity and bristle of face to face contact. Others will feel that the shift has now been made, and with it, a number of freedoms and a potential new way of teaching and learning to be explored. Inbetween most will want some of the benefits of online and the informal interaction of face to face.

This all presents a set of issues for institutions to grapple with. As I said all of these responses are valid, so insisting only one reaction will be accommodated is likely to lead to upheaval – staff or students will go elsewhere. How do they then accommodate this? The Hyflex model? The ‘take it or leave it’ approach? Diversification in the market place? A set of complex options to choose from?

The online pivot can be argued to have propelled online learning to centre stage and accelerated its uptake in higher ed by several years. But perhaps more significantly is the manner in which it will force flexibility on the sector, in terms of learners and staff. I mean, I’m not naive I know there will be the usual heavy handed approach from many institutions demanding on campus attendance, but flexibility will be the longer term trend.

The tech futures in 2000AD

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 19/02/2021 - 10:34

So, confession time – I seem to be regressing to childhood in lockdown. As a kid I used to get the sci-fi comic 2000AD every week. I had numbers 1 to about 450, but when I went to uni my mum gave them away to the boy scouts, saying “you didn’t want them did you?” When I tell you Issue 2 (the first to feature Judge Dredd) sells for about £600 on Ebay you can appreciate this is still kinda raw.

I’ve bought a few of the collections and graphic novels over the past couple of years. Then I got issue 1 as a birthday present and this prompted me to casually start buying the odd job lot on Ebay. It’s kind of fun to do a bit of collecting again. But the other day I was lying on the sofa, listening to Echo and The Bunnymen on vinyl and reading a paper issue of 2000AD. I was basically 13 years old again. I could intellectualise it, and I don’t think it’s _just_ nostalgia, but I’ve decided not to analyse this too much, it’s lockdown, anything goes.

Two things about 2000AD still hold up – the Britishness of it, standing against the dominance of the US comic book superhero, and the moral ambiguity. The most famous character is Judge Dredd who is both someone we root for and are appalled by (although Strontium Dog is probably my favourite). He is a lesson in what happens when you give police too much authority and allow fascist rule. This is explored in stories like America, and in a couple of recent issues that use Dredd tangentially to comment on the gig economy and private health insurance. But he’s also a hero, and you’re on his side, say when he’s fighting a T-Rex in the Cursed Earth. Garth Ennis argues that US comic book writers didn’t put their heroes in these situations, although some of that darkness is present in more recent outings.

Some of those 1970s/80s issues don’t always hold up – women tend to be drawn rather sexualised, and there are a fair few racial stereotypes (black, Jewish, Mexican), but on the other hand characters like Halo Jones gave an early feminist sci-fi hero, and there has been good diversity and representation across stories.

Anyway, to try and make this relevant, one of the recurring themes of 2000AD is our relationship with technology. Ro-Busters and the ABC Warriors showcase the moral ambiguity of how we treat sentient robots, in Rogue Trooper companions live on in microchips, there are omnipotent surveillance tools in Dredd’s MegaCity One and in Robo-Hunter a planet of robots thinks humans can’t be real because they’re supposed to be superior.

If your childhood reading shapes your adult attitudes then I wish more ed tech entrepreneurs had read 2000AD instead of Iron Man when they were young. Maybe then they’d be less inclined to view tech as a universal beneficial force and more inclined to consider it’s relationship with people. Take a look at this breathless TechCrunch piece about the ed tech companies that are going to show universities how to do online education (again). I mean, wouldn’t a dose of the grungy, messy, dirty tech of 2000AD have done them some good in their formative years?

The joy of the Between the Chapters podcast

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 12/02/2021 - 09:58

I blogged a while ago that Clint Lalonde organised an incredible community audiobook project, with different people reading a chapter of the 25 Years of Ed Tech book. Laura Pasquini got in touch over the summer suggesting hosting a podcast series that accompanied the audiobook. The podcast series, Between the Chapters, also focuses on one chapter, with different guests discussing a chapter, which is then released every week, with the audiobook chapter on Monday and the podcast on Thursday.

As an author it has been fascinating to listen to the podcasts. Whether it’s Clint and Bonnie Stewart reminiscing about the early days of blogs, Jessie Stommel raging about the concept of scaffolding or Lee Skallerup Bessette taking a deep dive into aspects of video, it is always fascinating.

There are several things I’ve really come to appreciate about this series. Firstly, the generosity of the guests both in terms of giving up their time, but also in their kindness about my chapter. Many of the guests are far more knowledgeable on the topic than I am (for instance it was great to have Mark Guzdial who was the first person I saw talk about wikis, guest on that episode). I am reasonably knowledgeable about ed tech across the board but as an author you have to accept that there will be elements (at least in a broad coverage book) where other people always know more.

Secondly, one of the claims in the book is that ed tech suffers from a kind of historical amnesia. The collection of people reminiscing about their experiences creates a form of oral history which is engaging and useful. If the book does nothing else other than act as a springboard for these accounts then it has gone far beyond my original aim.

Lastly, it has made me reflect on the nature of a book. We are accustomed to be recipients, or consumers of books. But that is changing in the internet years – we have fan fiction, social media interaction with the authors, open textbooks which can be adapted and forums dedicated to books, authors characters. These are all ways in which a book becomes more open – I like to think of the book now as an invitation to discuss, rather than an endpoint of the topic.

Clint, Laura and I did a podcast reflecting on some of this at the halfway point. We have also submitted a session for OER21/Domains conference so, if accepted, come along to that and hear how the process has been. I think it’s an interesting model for other textbooks, but it requires open licensing to get off the ground.

The tyranny of the timetable

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 02/02/2021 - 12:45
“06553 (469) 24-11-1986 Passenger Bulletin Board (timetable) at the Railway Station at San Pablo, Laguna, Philippines.” by express000 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Scheduling and the creation of timetables is a fantastically complex task in the world of increasing degree options. But it is also one of those things we take for granted, and don’t question its implications. James Clay wrote about creating more flexible, smart timetables that adapt to student needs, but even this has the lecture/class as an assumption.

It has struck me during the pivot how much the lecture is still the default model, and the effort has largely gone in to shifting this online. This would seem to me a missed opportunity for a number of reasons (many pedagogic), one of which is that it recreates the tyranny of the timetable. One of the consequences is that inter/multidisciplinary study is necessarily restricted. While there are agreed electives and joint honours, these are tightly controlled because otherwise the complexity of timetabling escalates rapidly.

There are frequent calls to increase multidisciplinary thinking, research, skills and teams to solve complex problems in health, crime, climate change, etc. Yet the ability to realise these skills is limited by restrictions we are busily recreating in online learning. This has been exacerbated during the pandemic when face to face institutions have been attempting to limit cross-bubble transfer of cohorts.

If, however, you embrace more asynchronous study modes then, logistically, all combinations become possible. It may not be appropriate to have all of these as there are prerequisites, and considerations about students being adequately prepared, but the primary limitation is no longer just a practical one based on physical limitations. The Open Programme at the OU allows for students to create their own pathways through our largely independent modules, which can be studied in sequence or simultaneously, because they are not attempting to align a rich matrix of synchronous events. This also gives power and agency to students rather than these choices being determined by an excel spreadsheet.

I appreciate that all HEIs won’t become asynchronous distance ed providers, but now that we’ve had to rethink education provision, simply replicating the lecture model with its inherent limitations would be a shame, and multidisciplinary richness would be one casualty.

Like an extinct fish: January review

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 01/02/2021 - 11:53


Seeing as January seemed to last about a year, I may as well do a review of themes over it as if it was an end of year review. I may attempt one of these at the end of every month with the same headings.

Highlight: I sent the complete draft manuscript of my book Metaphors of Ed Tech off to the publisher, Athabasca University Press

Teaching: In IET under the tireless direction of my colleague Leigh-Anne Perryman we continue to develop Microcredentials for the FutureLearn platform. We have a new one, Online Teaching: Accessibility and Inclusive Learning, starting in March which joins these as part of our online learning suite: Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Adult Learners; Online Teaching: Evaluating and Improving Courses; Teacher Development: Embedding Mental Health in the Curriculum

Theme: If there is a theme to January in higher ed and ed tech in general, I think it is best summarised as ‘Pandemic fatigue’. This is manifest in several ways – tired of all the conferences and journal call for papers looking at lessons of the pandemic; exhausted that it is still going on; frustrated that much of the initial empathy has gone and now it’s just workload; frighteningly inured to governmental incompetence. It’s January, it’s dark and miserable (in the UK anyway) and it’s just going on and on and on.

Lowlight: Related to the above, I think I felt overwhelmed this month more than any time in my 26 years at the OU. I also think I just wasn’t very good at my job. If your workload is 130% and your capacity is hovering around 70% it doesn’t take long to feel overwhelmed.

Vinyl highlight: Purchasing records is my retail therapy, don’t judge me. In keeping with the general melancholia of the month I have been listening to a LOT of Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co/Jason Molina. I particularly relished the box set of Love and Work with natty postcards, plectrum and letter.

Book: I read Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth in a day. It’s a rollicking good yarn, full of interesting characters and who can fail to the love the coelacanth, the fish that just carried on doing its thing when everyone thought it was extinct (insert your own educational metaphor here).

Distance ed lite

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 28/01/2021 - 19:02


Now that we are into the second semester of this academic year, with nearly all higher ed teaching taking place completely online, and many students studying from home, we are in effect seeing a nation of distance learners.

I know educators are working very hard to keep the process going, and don’t want to criticise anyone, but from things I’ve heard, I thought ‘d suggest some things that can be done fairly easily which will help students enormously. It is unrealistic to expect face to face providers to pivot online and to be operating with the same distance ed provision of a specialised provider like the OU. What needs to be developed effectively is a form of distance ed lite that doesn’t require a complete shift to the distance model, but provides some of the benefits for the learners. Here’s my list of some things that might help:

  • Get resources/courses/assessments posted early – a greater element of organisation falls to the students when studying at a distance so they need as much information as early as possible to help them plan. 2am the night before is not helpful.
  • Ensure reading lists are online or open access – when students can’t access the physical library, a lengthy reading list of physical books housed there is just irritating and if you expect them to buy them, costly and elitist.
  • Assessment rubrics – conducting new types of assessment (eg prolonged open book exams/essays) is difficult for students and it really helps to know how they will be marked. Vague instructions such as ‘give a brief account’ or ‘you can include this if you wish’ are confusing. Let the know where marks will be given and how many.
  • Assessment feedback – when operating at a distance the feedback given on assignments becomes much more significant in learner progression. Give detailed feedback and also positive comments as well as areas for improvement.
  • Don’t underestimate how much informal information you provided face to face – for example, it may seem that you give a presentation on exam tips every year, and providing the powerpoint is sufficient, but you probably provide a lot of clarification and extra points in that presentation which won’t be clear to the distance students.
  • Use polls/interactive tools in place of asking for verbal responses – this is especially true in large lectures. In a lecture hall someone may stick their hand up and you can have dialogue but that might be less likely online. In addition using tools like Vevox and PollEverywhere are useful ways to break up a lecture and add interaction.
  • Clarity, clarity, clarity – not only is it more easy to get the wrong end of the stick when you’re studying at a distance, it’s also more frustrating. However much clarity you think you provide in instructions, double it and add some more.

And institutions need to ensure that educators have the time and support to implement these actions. Fairly simple tweaks can make a big difference to students.

Death Star vs Storm Trooper investment

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 27/01/2021 - 09:16

Let us put aside the whole being evil and blowing up planets part of the Empire for now (although, admittedly that is a large part of their brand), and simply focus on the most efficient use of resources. Imagine you are Chief Imperial Budget Setter for the Empire.

Over Christmas I rewatched the Star Wars movies. And boy, do those Empire guys not learn the lesson about centralisation of resources. Three times they create an epic planet destroyer only to have it destroyed by someone pressing the ‘Destroy Death Star’ shiny button. There has been some good work on the economics of the Death Star and Rebel Alliance. But what came to mind when I was watching the films was the legendary poor aim of all Storm Troopers. They even joke about it in the Mandalorian.

So, let’s imagine you are that Chief Budget setter. The Death Star would apparently cost $7.7 Octillion per day to run (think of all the energy for all those light bulbs and sliding doors). Apparently an octillion has 27 zeros (48 here in Britain), so it’s a big number. And that’s per day?! What do you get for this outlay? Well, if it doesn’t get blown up, you get a very powerful symbol of dominance, an effective planet destroyer and you also gain clarity – you know where the money goes and can channel resources that way. Let’s assume that they manage to build one that doesn’t have a disastrous flaw for a moment, and consider if that is the best use of resources?

How much would it cost to give storm troopers really good shooting training? It is reckoned there are about 1.1 Billion stormtroopers. So how much would it cost to train them all to a standard where they could reliably hit a barn door with a banjo? Well, it costs £130,000 to train a Royal Marine, who we can assume are pretty good at shooting. My calculations mean that would cost £13 trillion or about $18 trillion (maybe though you just need to give them better designed helmets). That is a lot of money, but considerably less than the running and construction costs of the Death Star.

Would it be a better spend of resources though? In the Star Wars story the answer would seem to be yes. The story would have been snuffed out right at the start by an accurate shot at any of our heroes. And while the Death Star carries more potent symbolism and is likely to drive fear into more people, it is also a one action solution. There may be problems for which “blow up the planet” is not the best solution. Well trained StormTroopers give you this flexibility.

So, yes, of course it’s a metaphor. In the online pivot there may be a temptation to reach for a Death Star type solution – centralised, technological solution. But a more effective solution may be the StormTrooper investment, ie developing staff skills and enthusiasm for online learning. But with fewer lasers.

Creativity space

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 26/01/2021 - 15:59


One of the claims I make in the metaphors book I’m about to send off is that they provide a much needed route for creativity for practitioners in learning technology. I think this is important for two reasons: 1) it lets us think about ed tech in different ways; 2) people working in learning tech are creative people, often from other disciplines, who need some release from the daily grind of releases, roadmaps, support, etc. As Jim Groom likes to argue, the original open web was a creative space, and we can all do with a bit of creativity in our approach to teaching.

So, it’s rather ironic for me that the writing of this book has demonstrated how much creativity is under pressure in the current context. I booked a not unreasonable 15 days study leave to complete the book. But, like so many people, I have a number of different roles at the OU. Each of these needed attention, with the result that of my 15 allocated days, I managed just two devoted to the book.

Part of the reason I write books is because I like the process of writing books. In the past I’ve taken myself off for a week or two to somewhere romantically windswept and hunkered down in a creative burst, accompanied only by my dog and big box of wine. This is a productive way to work, I wrote my last two books pretty much in two week sprints like this. But perhaps just as importantly, it provides an antidote to the less creative, more quotidian aspects of the job. These aspects are important and necessary, but I like to balance them out. But this recent attempt at writing illustrated just how dominant they are now. This transformed the writing process from something I relish to yet another task I needed to fit in around meetings. This feels like both a personal and systemic failure, and in pandemic time it’s rather done me in. Higher education shouldn’t become a system designed to eradicate all traces of joy.

I know how whiny and privileged this sounds, compared with people with horrendous working conditions (eg imagine working for Arise), my life is luxurious. But it’s something I hear from lots of colleagues across all universities. We know meetings, reporting, quality monitoring, etc are all important, but people need some space for creativity, for their benefit, students and the institution.

Why use metaphors in ed tech

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 25/01/2021 - 14:09


I’m just about to complete a new book, Metaphors of Ed Tech. It’s sort of an accompaniment to 25 Years of Ed Tech (although entirely stand-alone) – it’s been argued that stories and metaphors are the two main modes that humans use to make sense of the world. So 25 Years was the story mode, and this is the metaphor mode. In the intro I set out why I think metaphors are an important way to think about ed tech.

The online pivot has highlighted for me the paucity of models we have around online education. It has been framed as a deficit model of the lecture and that’s about it. I feel that offering a range of metaphors that explore positive and negative aspects of ed tech is worth developing. Metaphor provides a means of considering ed tech that does not rely on a direct comparison with the existing model (it’s also kinda fun).

But more significantly it is because ed tech now, particularly since the pandemic, plays a central role in education. Ed tech is a multi-billion dollar industry and the role of companies and technology will have an influence on how education is realised in the coming years. The future of education and change within the sector are nearly always couched in terms of responding to the challenges proposed by technology, developing skills in students to function in a digital society and economy, and implementing technology or associated business models. The manner in which ed tech is framed and presented is often manufactured to suit the needs of those with a vested interest eg disruption. Understanding and thinking about ed tech, its implications, issues and context will be essential in shaping how it is used and our relationship to it. Metaphors are a means of achieving this, and in this chapter I want to set out why I feel they are important, and therefore why they can be significant in our relationship with ed tech.

Metaphor allows us to reason in a different manner about technology. By using a metaphor, particularly an unusual one, we can come to see different aspects of something, which can challenge our original thinking. Through metaphor we can think creatively when considering ed tech. I would argue that much of our relationship with ed tech is a quotidian, pragmatic one. A practical approach to technology is fundamental, but there is also room for  imagination and even playfulness when we consider it. Lots of practitioners who work in learning technology are worn down by the grind of it all, and metaphor allows some space for creativity, and that should be encouraged.

Blog review 2020

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 30/12/2020 - 15:03
Bryan Mathers captured the feeling of many of us

At the end of last year I wondered if I was losing my blogging mojo. I had a plan to try and kick start it in 2020 with a 25 Years of OU series, reflecting on my 25th Year of working at the Open University. I completed this just in time for the end of the year. It was ludicrously self-indulgent and of little interest to anyone else, but now that’s it complete I am fond of it as a record of my own career at one institution.

But, like everything else, my blogging plans were interrupted by Covid. When the implications of the pandemic became apparent for higher education, the role of online learning became central. I blogged my first post on the online pivot on March 9th, and over the hectic few months that followed, I wrote a further 22 posts on the pivot. These started out mainly offering support (through some drop-in sessions), resources and advice. As the year progressed, all the old complaints about online learning that you thought had faded away around the time of Brit pop were dusted off and presented as hot takes by people who had just realised it was a thing. So I spent some time railing against these.

Overall though, 2020 once again illustrated to me the value in having your own space and identity. When the pandemic hit, lots of colleagues in IET were inundated with requests for help. The OU itself would put in place a number of formal responses, but these things inevitably take a bit of time to get coordinated. In the interim having my own platform meant that I could (with the kind help of a number of colleagues who joined the drop-in sessions, or coordinated OpenLearn content) undertake some quick and dirty informal support. Online learning (and what was effectively distance education) is after all the Open University’s area of expertise.

This meant that I blogged more this year than I have in a long time, with 71 posts. There were 75,628 visitors and 604,427 visits. The most popular post was that initial one on the pivot.

Books, charts, lists, 2020

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 24/12/2020 - 16:16

Now in it’s 7th year, my annual book post with bonus pointless charts and lists.

One might expect that given that EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD WAS CLOSED, I would have read more books this year than last year. But I managed 59 this year against 2019’s high water of 93. Partly this was the impact of not commuting – a 6 hour round trip to Milton Keynes weekly certainly chunks through a number of audiobooks. But also habits changed and I didn’t devote as much time to books as previously. But more than one a week is acceptable.

In terms of genre, I pretty much completed my transition to being leisure reader, with crime dominating:

As I mentioned in the film post, this may be a function of the 2020 emotional hangover, but also a function of getting older and just not worrying so much anymore.

By author gender, women were in the majority:

And audiobooks were my main format. I’ve defended this before, so don’t @ me:

Here are 5 newish fiction books I enjoyed this year:

  • Sweetpea – CJ Skuse
  • Stay with me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
  • The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma
  • Savage Season – Joe Lansdale

And here’s 7 non-fiction ones which I will drop into conversation as if I’m now an expert on the subject:

  • Emperors of the Deep – William McKeever
  • indian Summer – Alex von Tunzelmann
  • Misbehaving – Richard Thaler
  • Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life – Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • Mudlarking – Lara Maiklem
  • Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
  • Underland – Robert Macfarlane

Here is the full list if you want to judge me:

  • Sweetpea – CJ Skuse
  • Original sin – PD James
  • Murder at the vicarage – Agatha Christie
  • Wilding – Isaballe Tree
  • Well of the Winds – Denzil Meyrick
  • With Our Blessing – Jo spain
  • Rome: A History in 7 sackings Matthew Kneale
  • Grimm Tales – Philip Pullman
  • Underland – Robert Macfarlane
  • Little bones – Sam Blake
  • Dirty little secrets – Jo Spain
  • Shroud for a nightingale – PD James
  • indian summer – Alex von Tunzelmann
  • The outcast dead – Elly Griffiths
  • The lighthouse – PD J ames
  • a mind to murder – PD Jjames
  • The dutch house – Ann Patchett
  • From doon with death – Ruth Rendell
  • At the edge of the orchard – Tracy Chevalier
  • The dark angel – Elly Griffiths
  • Misbehaving – Richard Thaler
  • Greetings from bury park – Sarfraz Manzoor
  • The turn of the screw – Henry James
  • Ttay with me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • Death at la fenice – Donna Leon
  • Remarkable creatures – Tracy Chevalier
  • The order of time – Carlo Rovelli
  • The outcasts of time – Ian Mortimer
  • Beneath the surface – Jo Spain
  • Mudlarking – lara Maiklem
  • My Life In Horror Volume One: Paperback edition – Kit Power
  • Savage season – Joe Lansdale
  • Mucho mojo – Joe Lansdale
  • The two bear mambo – Joe Lansdale
  • Antidote to venom – Freeman Wills Croft
  • The stone circle – Elly Griffiths
  • Emperors of the deep – William McKeever
  • Leviathan wakes – James Corey
  • Into the blue – Robert Goddard
  • The Zombies are Coming – Kelly Baker
  • The Tales of Max Carrados – Ernest Bramah
  • Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life – Peter Godfrey-Smith
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World – Peter Wohlleben
  • The Glorious Life of the Oak – John Lewis-Stempel,
  • The Hog’s Back Mystery – Freeman Wills Croft
  • The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma
  • The Boy Who Fell – Jo Spain
  • Big Sky Kate Atkinson
  • The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Why we sleep – Matthew Walker
  • Garden of the evening mists – Tan Twan Eng
  • The Sisters – Dervla McTiernan
  • The Black Tower – PD James
  • No Mans Nightingale – Ruth Rendell
  • Frogkisser! – Garth Nix
  • The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey
  • A Room full of Bones – Elly griffiths
  • Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
  • The Skull Beneath the Skin – PD James

Films of 2020 (yeah, I know)

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 23/12/2020 - 11:19

So, cinemas eh? The last film I saw before lockdown at the cinema was Birds of Prey. I then managed to pop to see Unhinged in the brief 5 minute window where cinemas were open again, before we went into local, then national, then sorta lockdown again. So, it’s. not going to be a bumper crop and some of the films I wanted to see eg Saint Maude, haven’t come out on streaming yet and I am too old to bother with torrents.

Here are ten films then that were released this year, which I managed to see and weren’t terrible:

The Hunt – the old people are kidnapped as hunting sport for rich folk storyline, given a modern social media twist. The hunted are conspiracy theorists and the hunters the liberals whose jobs were lost when they thought they’re jokes about The Hunt were real. Not sure if it was a parody on both-sideism, a piss take of the liberal elite, a cautionary tale about giving social media theorist credence, or a messy, having its cake and eating mess of all of them. But it was a lot of fun.

Host – conceived, shot and delivered in lockdown, this short horror about friends performing a Zoom seance and invoking a vengeful spirit was a taught POV thriller and will also serve as a time-capsule entry.

1917 – the last big ‘cinematic’ film before lockdown. Given the fate of cinemas since, and the move to direct streaming, who knows, Sam Mendes ‘one-take- romp through the WW1 trenches might be the last big cinema event for a while, perhaps ever. It was certainly an impressive technical feat to end on.

Birds of Prey – getting the tone right for this film was a difficult task. There are so many tensions that could have gone the wrong way: the psychotic – sympathetic character; sleazy trash aesthetic – sexualisation; independent strong female – connecting to Joker’s universe. That Cathy Tan got the balance right on all of these and made it an absolute ball, is no mean feat – this is perhaps best exemplified by the glitter shotgun raid on a police station. Quinn needs to be kickass and an outlaw, but she can’t actually kill cops. The famous hair tie scene encapsulated aspects that a female director brings to action movies in one neat line.

Mank – there’s a clip on social media of Gary Oldman dancing to James Brown while wearing his Winston Churchill makeup (inbetween scenes in the Darkest Hour). That sense of Oldman just having a blast with a character is what pervades Fincher’s tale of Henry Mankiewicz. Seyfried is almost as good as Marion Davies, continuing the reclamation of Davies’ reputation as a great comic actor that was destroyed by the depiction of Suzan Kane in Welles’s film. But it’s the mix of politics and parties of old Hollywood that make this such a treasure.

Parasite – I think this was still this year, right? I mean it seems so long ago. Bong Joon Ho’s savagely funny account of a family of loafers and chancers who claim the identity and house of a rich family seems to have hidden interpretations. It started out as a critique of capitalism, then when Trump reacted against its Oscar became a barometer for racism, and when the pandemic struck became a parable of living in lockdown.

Queen and Slim – the eponymous heroes are two professionals out on a first date when they are stopped by a racist cop, practised in all the skills of escalation. That encounter goes south and they go on the run. The rest of the film details their getting to know each other in sweet detail. But more importantly what it portrays are the small ways that they begin to take control of their own narrative. From the moment the cop stops them, they are, like so many POC in the US, powerless to control the narrative – regardless of what they do, things will change irrevocably for them from this point on. As they grow to know each other on the run, they find ways to reclaim this and frame their own story.

The Vast of Night – set over the course of one night in the late 50s, this centers on Sierra McCormick’s switchboard operator and Jake Horowitz’s Radio DJ as they seek to uncover strange occurrences. It is an affectionate, but entirely sincere throwback to the 1950s’ sci fi era of Twilight Zone, and the Day the Earth Stood Still.

Da 5 Bloods – while not quite as successful as BlackkKlansman, Spike Lee continued to demonstrate how he is right at the top of his game and can combine different entertainment genres with cutting racial politics. And Chadwick, farewell Chadwick.

Color Out of Space – this year’s bonkers Nic Cage movie was a Lovecraftian affair with a meteor mutating the lifeforms around a farm. It uses colo(u)r to portray alien sense and features some strong Nic Cageisms, who as his son notes “I think the freaked-out-abductee look suits you pretty well.”

Overall though I think in 2020 I wondered more than ever, what is a film anyway? Is it just length? In that case does Host count or is it just a one-off programme? Is it having a cinema release? Evidently not as most of these were made for streaming services. Perhaps movie and TV series are artificial divisions now. Empire magazine for instance, spends more time covering the Mandalorian than Tenet.

I didn’t watch that many films strangely enough, and tended to prefer entertainment over meaningful. I think when I became concerned about the lives (and livelihoods) of people running the local cafe, or the delivery guy, or the checkout woman at the supermarket, or the staff in the pub then I probably had a care deficit to devote to fictional characters. In this respect the best movie wasn’t a movie, but a limited series on Netflix: The Queen’s Gambit. It hit the perfect tone of entertainment, care, hope, strength and style without leaving me angry and frustrated. That’s what I wanted in 2020.