Warning! higher education is bad for your health  #UniMentalHealthDay 

Words Mental Heath made from scrabble tiles

March 1st was an awareness day. University Mental Health Day to be precise. This is the national campaign for promoting the mental health of people who live, work and study in Higher Education. Beginning in 2012, it’s run by Student Minds and  UMHAN  the University Mental Health Advisers Network and a flurry of postings highlighted the range of issues this might involve.

The THES posted University Mental Health Day: the weight of expectations addressing how pressure to perform, alongside a lack of institutional support, can have severe effects on mental health.

HEPI offered Who supports academics? ‘No one. No one. Literally no one.’ a guest blog written by Poppy Brown who also authored the 2016 HEPI report into The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health

Whether you’re learning, teaching or researching, it seems higher education is bad for you.

Student Minds logo

None of this is new. There’s been growing media coverage over the past year. The Guardian’s contributions included It’s time for universities to put student mental health first while Anonymous Academic covered bullying in the work place, trolling on social media, and declaring a disability.  In January WONKHE published Academics under pressure: the invisible frontline in student mental health which highlights the problems of the next step – once someone has admitted to needing support where should they be advised to go and who has responsibility for getting this right. The WonkHE piece links to the Research and Publications page of StudentMinds  where there’s the findings of a report titled Student Mental Health: The Role and Experiences of Academics

Well worth a read.

recommendations from the Role of an academic report available http://www.studentminds.org.uk/theroleofanacademic.html
Image from https://tinyurl.com/yctth4cg Full report from  http://www.studentminds.org.uk/theroleofanacademic.html

Anyone thinking of going to university o study or work would do well to take note. Higher education in the 21st century might not be what you think.

It wasn’t so many years a go I met someone who declared envy of my work in higher education. It must be wonderful, she said, to be surrounded by so much knowledge, to work alongside people who think for a living, to be in a place where books matter.

It’s only when you try to tell the truth you realise how difficult the truth can be.

collection of blue question marks

This is my 18th year in HE and to say I’ve seen changes is a massive understatement. The biggest has to be the introduction of the NSS,  REF and TEF bringing with them an audit and impact culture, but there’s also been the increasing diversity of student cohorts, stress on employability, on internationalism and throughout it all the relentless cutting back of resources. Oh, and the digitisation of university systems with an increase in administrative function. It isn’t only the rhetorical promise of the VLE to reduce costs and increase efficiency which is lies, all lies.

Staff in HE today struggle with increasing cuts and reductions alongside a relentless rise in bureaucratic expectations and – this is where I have to hold up my hand and admit I’m guilty –  the expectations they will all seamlessly adopt Technology Enhanced Learning into their pedagogy and practice.

Pedagogy and practice can be anomalous. I don’t like generic statements but it’s true that many academics are employed for their subject expertise and research specialisms rather than knowledge of pedagogic design and digital capabilities – but we ask – expect – assume this of them.

digital technolowies and an open book

Over the past two decades there’s been a shift in emphasis towards the student experience but what does this phrase mean? Does anyone know?

Have students – in their own eyes at least – become customers paying for a service?

Is fear of the NSS really preventing innovation and experimentation?

It’s no wonder stress levels are rising.

Then there’s data – which has become the new VLE.

Read the Dearing Report into the Future of Higher Education and substitute data for every mention of VLE or C&IT (always liked how Communication came before Information – so interesting how the I became privileged). If you read data or learning analytics instead the promise remains – be it improvement, enhancement, transformation or revolution, the rhetoric continues.

As do conflicting views on the value of higher education. In 1959 C. P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture entitled The Two Cultures where he claimed “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split between the sciences and the humanities. Over the years this argument has been challenged and supported in different ways, not least by Snow himself but two weeks ago the UK Government spectacularly re-lit the fire, suggesting tuition fees for humanities and the arts should be cheaper than those for STEM subjects.


yellow soft toy with open mouth to scream

I started this blog because I wanted to highlight the issues of mental health in higher education. Whether you are learning, teaching or researching you’re at risk and once you begin to tell truths you realise, with increasing anxiety for the future, just how large and difficult these truths are.

I wanted to point out how research into the mental health of PhD students suggests they are the most stressed of all.  So far, the research I’ve read is based on f/t study yet nearly everyone I know taking a PhD is doing it p/t alongside f/t work. I want to suggest this often isolated and forgotten about group may be at even more risk of developing symptoms of stress and fatigue.

SuCCEED@8 support group details

At the University of Northampton where my PhD is registered, we’ve set up SuCCEED@  (Supporting the PhD Community to Collaborate and Emotionally Engage in Digital Shifts at Level 8) The group aims include supporting the mental health of PhD students, in particular those studying p/t and at a distance. Were also on Twitter @Succeedat8 

I wanted to blog about coping mechanisms like these are dependent on digital literacies and confidence and how the rhetorical promise of TEL does not address diversity of use and digital shyness or resistance. In the same was stress on the educational experience of students does not address any absence of pedagogic or digital confidence of staff who teach and support learning.

My worry is the current highlighting of mental health issues of staff and students will not address realistic and manageable solutions. All the issues named here need more than what we’ve done so far, they need more than application of training techniques or coping mechanisms. It will take fundamental structural change to make change happen. There are not enough workshops or yoga positions in the world to make this happen.

images from pixabay or my own








the reconstruction of part-time higher education

green front cover of OU report Fixing the broken market

There a new report out

Fixing the Broken Market in Part-Time Study

From the OU

I quote

Lord Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science at the time of the reforms, has said that the collapse in part-time student numbers is ‘one of my biggest regrets about my time as Minister’

Oh come on!

Was anyone in his circle of family and friends affected? I doubt it.

Part-time education matters. Anyone could have predicted what the changes in student fees would do.

And it did.

The market isn’t just broken its crushed.  For all the rhetoric about widening access and participation,  it’s never been harder to get into university as a part-time student.

image of herbs being crushed in a bowl

I came into higher education at the turn of the century.  On the back of the Dearing report (1997) I worked on widening participation projects. The ones where you go into schools and talk to pupils about aspirations, bring them onto campus for mini-university experiences, play spot the lecturer (yes, honest, jeans and trainers, the suit is in ICT) It was all about breaking down the social and cultural barriers which make people believe a higher education is not for them.

The years before I’d worked in adult and community education, teaching computer skills, supporting adults who’d been out of formal education for some time or never had the opportunity to study, helping them get back into employment after a career break or disability. I’d started my first degree after  the family were all at school. I was widening participation in action. Ten years before the Dearing Report it was already happening – albeit without the internet.

image showinf two cartoon people on either side of a chasm

I’ve been lucky.

Both my MA’s were part time and six years  ago I signed up for a part time degree in Creative Writing at the University of Hull. It was the thought of the new fees wot did it. I got in just before the changes. Still had to pay – over 6 years it worked out as @£1000 a year – but for me it was money well. There were opportunities to be creative, meet new people, cover a wide range of genre. Hard work but worth it. The subsequent fee increases led to an inevitable drop in numbers and the part-time degree has now closed. Over half of my class wanted to take the MA in Creative Writing. They had the talent but simply couldn’t afford it.

For most it was their first experience of HE. I don’t think many would disagree that in one way or another the past 6 years were transformative. Not only in terms of knowledge and experience but in the acquisition of a  variety of skills and overall confidence in both the subject and as individuals. They were so proud to graduate and I was proud to have been part of such an talented and energetic group. Isn’t this what life is about? Learning there’s more to the world than exists in your little corner?

pink and green direction arrows

Fixing the Broken Market says some right things:

For prospective students, greater flexibility in degree provision will help people access the life-changing opportunities that a university education can provide…allowing people additional routes to higher skills – such as through flexible ‘learn-while-you-earn’ higher education provision or apprenticeships – will be vital to allow people to upskill and retrain whilst in work.



I’m currently involved in supporting a Degree Apprenticeship Programme. Intended to be partnerships between employers, universities, and professional bodies, students will have the opportunity to study (UG and PG) while working. It’s a revival of part-time study through work based learning.

book, phone and keyboard

At Lincoln I supported a variety of Work Based Learning programmes which focused on the needs of local employers. For me, WBL was widening participation in action. It was where the affordances of education technology came into their own and inclusive practice was essential in rural areas with poor broadband connections. I built transition support and helped amend the validation process. By the time a  WBL award got to validation, the differences and challenges had already been addressed, the first module developed and was demonstrated. For years I did the best I could to support staff teaching on these programmes. What I couldn’t control then, and still struggle with today, is time.

cartoon person pushing a brown cog wheel representing the gears of digital shifts

I know from experience how studying part-time while working full-time is tough.

My PhD is on a burner so far back I can’t see it.

Without support from your employer, part time study risks being an unachievable goal. The new Degree Apprenticeships have to acknowledge the reality of the full time work/part time study dichotomy.

It’s good to see Fixing the Broken Market in Part Time Study has bought up the issues, but the rationale worries me. Times have changed and the purpose of higher education is changing too. This resurgence of attention is also a reconstruction.  Part-time is repackaged as shorter, flexible modes of study. ‘Learning and Earning’ the new catch phrase. Improving the skills of the working-age population the driver.  A  meritocratic society the vision. Technology the discipline focus. This isn’t about the Arts or Humanities which, if I’m reading it right, are presented  low-value learning. It’s STEM STEM STEM all the way home.

keyboard with a sign saying Under Construction

Parts of the report make me want to cry – not in a good way. Page 9 addresses the lessons learned following the Browne Report and show how far removed the government was (still is) from reality. Read it yourself and see. Here are some tasters

It was thought that part-time students would respond to increases in deferred fees in the same way as full-time students…. it [was] thought that more part-time students would be entitled to and take-up tuition fee loans than actually did…  we would not expect a negative impact on the demand for part-time study… The experience of the last few years shows that this assumption, that all of us made, was catastrophically wrong

No shit Sherlock!

silhouette of raised arms

Apart from higher education becoming purely an employability incentive there are some lights at the end of this long dark tunnel. ‘Lessons from recent history include part-time students and full-time students need to be thought about differently by policymakers.‘ Yep, they certainly do. And by the universities and by all staff who teach and support learning but I would challenge statements like ‘Less time out of work is required for these flexible study modes‘ because this isn’t true. 20 credits is still 200 hours of learning no matter how you present it.

timer laid on its side in the sand

However the biggest single hurdle to achieving authentic and meaningful part- time study is time. Without an institution and employer wide shift in culture towards genuine CPD, part-time study will continue be a source of stress rather than reward.

I know…

I’m stressed…the Phd sleeps quietly in my absence….while I count down the days to Christmas for all the wrong reasons.

christmas baubles and tree

all images from pixabay.com

avalanches, golden eggs and yellow brick roads

avalanche image from pixabay
image from https://pixabay.com/en/waterfall-avalanche-volcano-cascade-2757596/

Have you read An Avalanche is Coming my DoS asks. It should be a must-read now Michael Barber is head of the Office for Students (OfS) – replacing the Office for Fair Access and HEFCE.

I’d just looked at the Securing student success: risk-based regulation for teaching excellence, social mobility and informed choice in higher education Government consultation on behalf of the Office for Students which was also a a DoS recommend. Like this. ‘Whether you are a student, work in HE, or intend to work in HE after graduation, the consultation matters to you. Have a look at it, see what changes are planned.’ So I did.

magnifying glass and fingerprints
image from https://pixabay.com/en/detective-clues-find-finger-152085/

My approach with chunky digital docs is the Find function. First off the search is for digital, online, virtual, technology – this indicates if it might be relevant to my research topic of digital shifts – next up are pedagogy, teaching and learning.  So, relatively painlessly I discovered the government in the consultation document is still using the language of revolution and transformation by technology. ‘Artificial intelligence and other technology might revolutionise assessment, educational research might transform pedagogy.’ (2017: 48)

At least they’re using the word ‘might’ but still cause for concern. Technology was bestowed with transformative potential back in the 1990s. Has it happened? There’s little evidence it has and much to the contrary. Other than widen access for some (and create barriers for others) alongside the mass digitisation of resources, policy and processes, the literature suggests technology has neither revolutionised nor transformed student learning.

The lecture is not yet dead!

large empty lecture theatre with rows of empty seats
image from https://pixabay.com/en/room-lecture-hall-assembly-hall-2775439/

Instead, a trail of rejected, unfulfilled promises litter the ed-tech landscape; VLE, Web 2.0, MOOC, mobile –  picking up stuff like Second Life and Oculus Rift along the way – toward Learning Analytics, more virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Each one a technology-first approach. All with technology determinist foundations. Each with scant evidence of critical questioning around who creates and develops it, markets, purchases, controls access etc (apart from the overall critiques from the likes of Neil Selwyn, Sian Bayne, Audrey Watters et. al. of course)

With this thinking in mind I approached An Avalanche is Coming, published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) with three authors (Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, Saad Rizvi) affiliated with Pearson Publishing Corporation. They refer to learners as “customers” and discuss six change factors, claiming these could challenge the university as we know it and set off the avalanche of change.

  • changing global economy,
  • crisis-ridden global economy,
  • rising costs of higher education,
  • declining value of a traditional degree,
  • ubiquity of content,
  • quickening intensity of competition in the educational marketplace.

The authors also introduce the concept of unbundling and rebundling which is the inclusion and exclusion of traditional university components – thereby potentially separating out aspects of HE provision to third party providers.

I hang on the adage where there’s change there’s also opportunity.

avalanche control fences image from pixabay
image from https://pixabay.com/en/avalanche-protection-1001284/

What did the Find button reveal?

References to technology, e.g. increased global access, expansion of competition, greater choices etc are all familiar, as is the need for students to shift from consuming knowledge towards evidencing a diversity of creative and innovative learning experiences and abilities. Put together, all this constitutes the need for digital shifts on institutional, pedagogical and personal levels. None of which is new. The problem has always been technology as the answer when it’s not the T for Technology in TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) but the T for teaching in LTE (Learning and Teaching Enhancement) which needs attention.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift persuasively argue (to those in favour of market-oriented reforms of education) that reconstructing students as consumers ‘does not necessarily yield improved outcomes in student learning.’ (2011, p. 137)

fairy shadows in transparent brown hearts
image from https://pixabay.com/en/elves-fee-on-wood-romantic-2769599/

Ok – this is the crux. We’re chasing the chasing the golden egg, looking for the rainbow’s end, each Yellow Brick Road contains echoes of the emperors new clothes. The fairy tale analogies are deliberate because FT are stories imbued with universal truths. They survive because we recognise their message. They have resonance. So it is with the quest for learning improvement. The secret is under our noses. It’s been there all along. Where there is widening participation, support for transition needs to be addressed. Where technology is promoted the necessary philosophical and pedagogic changes in practice need to be supported.

cartoon rainbow
image from https://pixabay.com/en/buy-me-a-coffee-natural-cloud-field-2757467/

So when it comes to the enhancement of learning and teaching, what is needed is inquiry of the pedagogical rather than technological kind. This doesn’t need revolution or even transformation. The roots are already in place. The majority of students learn best through discussion, dialogue, sharing, questioning, comparing, contrasting, getting out of their comfort zone in supportive collegial environments alongside the processes of critical thinking and reflection. Addressing questions such as these:

  • What worked well and why?
  • What worked less well and why?
  • What should I do again?
  • What should I do differently?

More time and resource on transition into HE, in particular the differences between the learning and teaching culture and expectations of school, college and university, would enable students to hit the ground running.

pink and green direction arrows
image from https://pixabay.com/en/one-way-street-decisions-opportunity-1991865/

Giving those who teach and support learning the time allocation – plus reward and recognition – to become research informed and engaged with regard to their own teaching practice – would enable them to develop the active learning environments which the literature shows students perform best in.

I’d also suggest rethinking curriculums to embody learning development at both generic and subject knowledge levels, alongside digital graduate attributes, internationalisation, employability, and inclusive practices.

A three pronged approach – students, staff, curriculum…

and they all learned happily ever after.

Written on a research day…

Everything is related…



#phd shelfie-blog challenge

image showing top ten books being written about in this blog post

The image is a bit of a spoiler!

#PhDShelfie has appeared on Twitter. Followed by shelfie-blog and an invitation from Julie Blake @felthamgirl to join in. I’m easily distracted, especially when challenged with words. I’d contributed a #phdshelfie, extended to tablie and floorie, so why not a blog post too? Would be rude not to and technically it’s no distraction – the letters P H and D are in there – somewhere – a bit.

image showing piles of books on shelves and tables and paper piles on the floorSo here’s my top ten books choice from the research corner of my room.

  • Starting with the field of education technology, I offer Rethinking University Teaching by Diana Laurillard (2002). The book suggests the socially constructivist Conversational Framework for harnessing its communicative and collaborative potentials. I find the book more accessible than the later Pedagogical Patterns while the focus on how students learn earns it a place on every educational developer/researcher’s shelf.
  • Moving from the potential of TEL,  pause a moment for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (2014). A critical attack on technology determinism, the book shines light on the relationship between digital platforms and the wider society in which they’re developed and used. Agree with him or not, Selwyn offers a PoV well worth consideration.
  • Staying with digital media, the next book is Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. You’d think it was the result of an internet click-binge on a wet bank holiday weekend, but oh no – this prescient account of cultural transformation was written in 1985. Postman is responding to the rise in US cable TV and subsequent lack of serious news in the public domain. My goodness, what would he say today?
  • So how has technology got such a hold over us? Try Propaganda, a slim volume by Edward Bernays, first published in 1928. If you haven’t come across Mr B you’ll have heard of his uncle, Dr Sigmund Freud. Using the application of Uncle Siggy’s psychoanalytic techniques, Bernays developed what came to be known as Public Relations (which he tellingly named the ‘engineering of consent’).  Achievements included persuading young women to smoke Lucky Strikes which he’s renamed ‘Torches of Freedom’ and convincing all of America the best breakfast in the world was bacon and eggs. I’d also recommend watching Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. This uses archive film to document the cultural influence of Bernays across the 20th century.

  • To help deal with a world full of devious advertising and rogue technology, I offer The Consolations of Philosophy by Alan de Botton (2000). Some academics may look down their purist noses but I loved how this friendly, accessible book introduces philosophers such as Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and my favourite, Montaigne. If education is about different ways to see the world, then here’s a great example. The human condition is universal and this book is full of ageless advice on how to cope. Read from front to end or simply dip in and out if you’re having a bad day. You won’t be sorry.
  • Feeling better? Shh….. nothing is quite how it seems. The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills was written in 1959 and stayed in print ever since. Demanding we ask questions to ‘make the familiar strange’ it applies the principles of Socratic questioning to the social world. Today we’re more likely to call it ‘thinking outside of the box‘ but whatever phrase we use, Mills’ advice never ages – it gets more relevant as time passes.
  • One of the problems with a critical lens is it can make the world seem a bit wobbly (when it’s too early for wine) so why not sweep away everything you relied on as a truth and start again. The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) questioned the legitimation of truth claiming grand narrative explanations were no longer credible. Instead, knowledge was situated, diffuse, fractured and worst of all, unreliable. All researchers have to grapple with the nature of truth and knowledge while  postmodernism went a bit overly pretentious, it still deserves more credit than it gets. We owe much to the PM years, not least drawing attention to diversity and structured inequalities. PM threw the rule book out of the window. It legitimated parody and pastiche. Introduced identity performance while troubling and collapsing binaries. It promoted the subversion of anything which could be deconstructed and then reconstituted it in more challenging ways. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing – is it?
  • Phew, ready for some light relief? I wanted to include some poetry but that’s a different bookcase – maybe a blog for a different season? This call was related to research so I’ve chosen The Action Research Dissertation by Kathryn Herr and Gary L. Anderson (2019).  The full story of the difference this book made is on Thesis Whisperer Know Your Limits. Suffice to say it helped validate my PhD choices and gave me the confidence to stick with it when the going got tough – which it did – very tough…
  • This week I’m reading The Digital Academic; Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education by Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thompson. Hot off the press (July 2017) it deals with the digital as in social media and MOOC while reinforcing (maybe not intentionally?) the existence of on-campus digital divides between those who do technology and those who, often with pride, announce they don’t. For the latter, who may be less likely to find anything familiar in these well researched chapters, the book raises the question – how long can academics in 21st century HE continue to avoid issues of digital scholarship and practice?
  • To finish I’ve chosen Learning with the Labyrinth; Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education edited by Jan Sellars and Bernard Moss (2016). I’ve been involved with the use of labyrinths as creative spaces and meditative walking experiences for some time e.g. Walking the Labyrinth and was delighted to review this book for Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. The origin of the labyrinth symbol and shape is unknown and it’s this ‘not-knowing’ has always intrigued me. Labyrinths are not mazes , despite the linguistic confusion in dictionaries and encyclopedias. With no dead ends, their circular path winds round and round into the centre and back out again. Walking a labyrinth offers the experience of pressing the pause button, taking time out to focus on the journey and maybe reflect. You don’t realise until  afterwards how you’ve stepped out of the world for a few moments, something we don’t do often enough. The book takes you on a fascinating journey around the use of labyrinths within student learning and educational development.

Note to the University of Hull – the space outside the library cafe would be perfect for a permanent labyrinth installation. This is the one Jan Sellers facilitated at the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. Looks lovely. Just saying…

empty space outside of the university of hull library  labyrinth in the grounds of University of KEnt Canterbury Campus

Now the challenge is for anyone reading this to select their own top ten books from their research bookshelf #phdshelfie-blog

it has to happen this summer

text from Richard III by Shakespeare

Now is the summer of our research
made glorious by missed deadlines and our failed
attempts to keep aside the time required
so clouds have now descended oe’r our desk
and darkened sunlight’s warmth from mine own eyes.

apologies to Richard III

It’s been an interesting week…

Booking Thursday and Friday as leave (aka research time) I find myself at my desk both days. My time management skills seem poor – but they’re not. They’re good thereby enabling me to juggle multiple tasks and commitments.

I’ve been trying to make research space for some time. For me, it isn’t something you can dip in and our of. Your head needs to be in a different place and it takes time to adapt.  But (always a but) every day something new arrives and it’s not always appropriate to say no. My diary is full. I’m lucky. Most of the time I love it.

We work in an environment where impact is measured by achievements. Started – finished – full stop. Unfortunately most of our work doesn’t fit into such neat categories. It involves conversations (we need to talk – find time to talk) and this is good. As newly restructured Teaching Enhancement Advisors, talking helps construct and establish our multiple roles. We are Signposts. Guides. Facilitators. We also have areas of responsibility. Mine include inclusive approaches to teaching and learning and  developing a digital capabilities framework. We’re trying to establish the need for central and local support to make more effective use of virtual technologies and systems. The aim is to promote the advantages of digital shifts in process and practice. The university is supporting an institution wide survey of staff which is a fantastic opportunity but full time challenge – in particular balancing the practicalities and philosophies of changing ways of working. Development time is not always measurable. We’re Advisors.  To advise needs preparation which is not always easy to quantify. Take reading for example. This week I’ve picked up the documentation around  TEF3, the subject level pilot and critiques,  the new Improving Digital Literacy report from the NHS, and a piece on Active Blended Learning There’s a piece on Dearing in the House, 20 years on. As my research timescale is 1997-2017 with Dearing and Gilster as starting points. I need to read this – but havent done so yet.,

Underpinning everything is our new Design for Active Learning approach to Teaching Enhancement. This is an evidence based, scholarly way of working (which might or might not involve technology) which puts pedagogy and the student experience first. It’s been designed to bring together all the eclectic elements of our new roles, fit in with university strategy and curriculum design, and underpin an annual programme of events which in turn are connected to potential red data flags. The hours spent discussing, sharing and evidencing (the diagram below is version 11) is development time which can’t be so easily translated onto a checklist on a project management board. When it happens, impact can be transformational, but it takes time to build the underlying structures needed to make it happen.

Draft diagram for Design for Active Learning approach to teaching enhancement

In the meantime…

…..my uveitis has kicked in. I spent Tuesday afternoon at the Eye Hospital – sat there for hours – until I was the only person left. That’s a statement not a complaint. The NHS is amazing. They commit to seeing me within 48 hours and while reception might have closed shop by 6.00 the nurses and consultants were still working as was the pharmacy. All free at the point of delivery and unlike A&E not a single drop of alcohol in smell or sight.

Just me and Phil.

There’s lots of Larkinalia.

Round the corner is a wall mounted box full of pairs of his glasses. Heavy framed,  thick lenses, while on the wall of the waiting area are the b/w photos he took alongside lines from his poems.  I sat watching them blur as my eyes dilated and vision clouded over to the familiar point where crossing the road is dangerous and bus numbers no longer visible.

Then there’s the allotment.

The home nest is empty.  Babies became adults busy building lives of their own, but I have children of a different kind. The cucumbers are ready, artichokes flowering, broad beans at the pre-red pink I like best and the last raspberries need picking.



I have identity-confused courgettes. Am I green or yellow?  This is a first!

The greenhouse is full of peppers and tomatoes. Marigolds on pest control look blooming happy but apart from some beans and sweetcorn the beetroot, rainbow chard, fennel, spaghetti squash and butternut are all missing.


Most of the beds are covered in multi shades of canvas to control the weeds. Morning glory and couch grass is taking over the borders and the strawberry patch while I feel sorry for Stan next door who carefully steps around my overflowing borders while tactfully observing ‘looks like you’re busy luv’.

Stan, ex Harrogate Flower Show Judge, is retired. Stan grows chrysanthemums. Across the way is Alan, newly retired, who grows and shows dahlias. The colours are fabulous as are the bunches they bring me in September.

None of this – some would say – are genuine excuses for falling behind with the PhD.

What makes it even worse is I’m self-funding so all the angst comes at a hard price. Family are puzzled. They keep asking why I need this bit of paper.  It’s a good question. Times have changed since I started my PhD. At Lincoln research into education development was valued; all the team involved in PG study of one form or another, or applying for PSF or CMALT accreditation.

It takes one to know one and you have to be involved with f/t work and p/t study to understand the pressures of giving up evenings and w/es to read and write. So why?

As colleagues, friends and family set off here, there and everywhere, why have I planned August as the Summer of my Research. I love travel. It’s been 11 months since my last trip – the longest time (since starting traveling again in 2009) since I last sat at an airport.


  • First – practically – too much time, energy and money has been invested
  • Second – a PhD is about learning to do research and the processes of knowledge construction – it’s a privilege to be involved.
  • Third – three years spent working collaboratively with staff who were mostly late rather than early adopters of ed tech and incredibly generous with sharing their experiences will, I hope, produce useful findings.
  • Fourthly – the doctorate focuses on teaching and learning in UK HE but the social impact of the internet is an under researched area in particular how it mirrors positive and negative culture and reinforces discrimination. Those already socially excluded and disempowered are likely to be digitally excluded as well which has relevance to all online and blended education initiatives.

Rogers Diffusion of Innovations technology adoption curve

I could go on but am already way over my word limit. It’s time to conclude.

Paying for stress is not my idea of fun but here we are. I have data to analyse and a thesis to write. Digital shifts; what are they, when they appear, where they’re found, who they affect, why they happen and how we support them matters to everyone working within UK T&L

It’s 2017. How can you not have technology as part of your day-to-day practice?

I hope my research offers a deeper, thicker approach to how staff conceptualise teaching and learning in a digital age. This is something I beleive is relevant.My task is to convince the knowledge gatekeepers to see it in the same way.

letters spelling goal

So this is the summer of my research.

I’ve booked 13 days leave over August with the intention of completing the revised Literature Review chapter and analysing the interview data. Seeing it in b/w like this is scary. It feels like an impossible task but I have a plan to work in the university library and at the end of each day produce a condensed paragraph of text summarising progress. This will then be posted here. This is my public commitment because I’m running out of time. It has to be done!

on a scholarly approach to teaching enhancement

image of bookshelves and a mobile device showing wikipedia

I’ve meant from the start to write a post about the blog title. Why Digital Academic? Why not Digital Shifts or TEL Tells or.so on… there were enough reasons but always something else to write about instead.

18 months on, it’s come to the forefront…

I was told by a colleague this week that I’m not an academic because I don’t have an academic contract. My professional services contract defines what I do.  Since changing from an A to a PS contract I’ve wondered what the difference means in practice. What should I change?  Stop learning? Stop researching?  Look different?

cartoon image of an owl sitting on a book

We were discussing our restructure. My job description as Academic TEL Advisor always differed from the other TEL Advisors because Technology had been replaced with Pedagogy. Our recent plans for a learning design approach (which might or might not include the T word) originated from this difference. Putting pedagogy first is attracting the more digitally shy or resistant to the table – those we might not usually get to talk to.

During the restructure conversation,  I said I wanted to have scholarship made explicit in our new roles as Teaching Enhancement Advisors. By this I meant:

  • Scholarship as per the HEA’s 2015 research into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ScoTL).
  • Scholarship as in being research informed and research engaged.
  • Scholarship which includes
    • having conceptual frameworks,
    • being a ‘research-led form of professional development’
    • having ‘the potential to inform policy and practice at institutional level, for example, in career development and in the promotion and recognition of teaching excellence’ See the HEA Summary Report

Teaching excellence is everywhere these days! HE is currently on the crest of the big data wave informed TEF (or Tsunami, depending on your POV). Like it or not, the TEF is here and affects perception which in turn effects student cohorts, curriculum design, learning spaces, public engagement etc.

The TEF might be drawing attention to T&L but shouldn’t all our teaching enhancement interventions be underpinned with scholarly approaches anyway – pedagogy first rather than technology determinism?

image showing open book, glasses and mobile phone

So what does it mean to be scholarly?

I don’t think by definition it’s only a postgraduate occupation although at institutions where you already need a doctorate to become a lecturer, it’s even more important those on professional services have the opportunity to study.   Librarians do doctorates. Administrators do too.  I struggle with time constraints and self-funding but think of my PhD as a privileged opportunity to get up close and personal with the processes of knowledge construction and dissemination – the heart of the HE endeavour. A professional services contract does not and should not exclude you from professional development although where it means you have to be self-funding it does becomes discriminatory and unequal.

Back to contract status.

What difference does having (or not having) the word academic in your contract mean?  Isn’t ‘academic’ itself a state of mind? Shouldn’t we all be exercising our sociological imaginations and asking questions, making the familiar strange.*’ Isn’t being scholarly just a case of seeing the larger picture and using evidence to justify your position?

art gallery showing questions and answers processes

There’s never been a greater need for scholarly critique. The future is precarious. Climate change is happening. The bees are troubled and the internet transforming what it means to be posthuman.

There’s no escape from the social impact of the internet. Digital divides between people like myself, with physical and virtual identities, and colleagues who openly state they ‘don’t do technology’ have never been deeper. The question is what to do about it. Should institutions be insisting on digital engagement and if so – how? It all comes back to digital shifts.

cartoon showing the devil relating torture to powerpoint

I might be wrong. They may not matter – clearly they’re not relevant to some – but if you work in HE you’re connected to the student experience and I’d suggest being aware of the implications of teaching or learning in a digital age is part of what you do.

Back to the war of the words. The clinching phrase from the original conversation was ‘you may want to be on an academic contract but you’re not.‘  That’s me told then!

Am I bovered?

Having chosen to put this in the public domain it might look like I am, but tbh, so long as it isn’t detrimental, I don’t mind what I’m called. It’s more about the semantics than the status. I’ll always be a reader, thinker and writer. I’m comfortable with a ‘digital academic’ identity but also have a fundamental belief that what you do has more credibility when informed by the appropriate literature**.  Just because an employment contract says PS and not A, it should never preclude a scholarly approach.

teddy bear reading a book

*  from C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

** Mark Carrigan offers an interesting persepctive on ‘the literature’  https://markcarrigan.net/2016/11/25/what-is-the-literature/  a topic for another blog post in the future

this week’s post is bought to you by digital procrastination

image of keyboard and social media icons from pixabay

Procrastination is something I’m good at. Very good.

I wander through the world wide web like it’s my second home – or maybe even my first I spend so much time there!

Hyperlinks are my downfall. There’s still excitement attached to them. My brain is a sponge. It doesn’t always retain what it finds but it loves a good soaking.

Hyperlinks were the brainchild of Tim Berners Lee. The internet already existed and the WWW was a way of linking individual pages and sites.  In the early days you knew you were online.  Dial up connections beeped and whirred like some giant machine coming to life and the internet being what it is, you can remind yourself exactly what this sounded like

My first computer was a second hand Tandy. I was married and living in the country. My first internet connected computer was a Gateway 486. I was divorced and a city dweller.  A degree does this to you. As passing your driving test gives you independence so taking your first degree opens your mind and like Pandora’s Box, once opened it can’t be closed again.

Today the internet/www is integral to our lives and for some, the boundaries between the real and unreal are getting confused.  During the US election there was much debate around social media and fake news/false truths. US voters told the world how they relied on Facebook and Twitter as sources of truth because they followed so many people and the majority view had to be the right one, didn’t it.

There are generations who have been born into digital life and know no other, unlike my peers who have analogue feet and roots. We were there at the beginning. My Tandy computer ran DOS, the word processor used commands like <b>strong</b>. I still have a 5 ½ inch floppy disk and sometimes use it in presentations where, as the years pass, less people know what it is,

After DOS came the Microsoft GUI and mouse. We learned to point and click, double click, drag. Now it’s touch screen and a thousand smudgy fingerprints as we tap, double tap, swipe while speech to text and text to speech alternatives continue to get more accurate every year and films like Ex Machina and Her take us to the edge of what is real and unreal – or so we think.

Should we be concerned over the line between real and unreal? Is this what we should be discussing with students? With the aptly named Second Life there were many stories of people becoming emotionally attached to online avatars and we see this today with online dating where digital identity takes on real meaning for real-world users.

Baudrillard gained notoriety for saying the Gulf War hadn’t happened. He didn’t mean it didn’t take place but that for most of us, it was a second hand experience, mediated by a digital reality which wasn’t real. It was hyperreal.

Hyperreality, as in Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle (1967) is about the confusion between real and representation, in Debord’s case this was caused by a proliferation of images. It isn’t hard to rethink this using virtual reality or even the animated posters they have on the London Underground. They’re like something out of Harry Potter they move and speak to you as though they were real people.


In Simulacra and Simulation (1981) Baudrillard described confusion between real and unreal claiming we’re mistaking digital reality for the real thing so whoever controls digital media has increasing influence over attitudes and behaviours. We are living in a state of hyperreality; hyper from the ancient greek meaning over or above as in hypersonic (faster than the speed of sound) or hyperspace as a different dimension where science fiction characters can travel at hypersonic speeds. The internet/www is known as hyperspace. Online we communicate instantly regardless of time or distance. Online we’re digital space travellers and in 2017,with instant wifi for our mobile devices, we’re increasingly taking this immediate access for granted.

What matters is having the critical digital literacies to be aware this is a construction. Documentary maker Adam Curtis describes Hypernormalisation as a politically influenced state of knowing your reality is wrong but accepting it as right because there’s no alternative.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series also explores these boundaries through prescient scenarios involving digital shifts and realities. The digital isn’t real yet it must be if we’re all using digital communication to collaborate and make sense of the world.

This blog came about because I read this review from the Research Student Conference at the University of Northampton and was struck by how it reflected the writer’s own perception rather than what I was saying.

PhD student Sue Watling’s timely paper focused on staff attitudes towards technology-enhanced learning and discussed what this can mean from the instructor’s perspective and the processes to standardise training of such skills for teaching staff. (my emphasis)

I was talking about digital shifts yet mention technology enhanced learning and it’s interpreted ‘standardise training and skills. I come across this a lot. With regard to the digital there’s a mismatch between what I’m saying and what you’re hearing and interpreting.  This is something which needs addressing.

So this post was going to be you say training, I say teaching, you say skills I say capabilities or something along those lines, but I couldn’t even get from there to here without procrastinating a whole blog post away. Like I said, its something I’m very good at.