Lincoln blog 2013

Winter solstice – where science and culture merge

December 20, 2013 | PhDUncategorized  |  Leave a Comment

Frost patterns

Winter is the time of alternative beauty. I love the patterns of ice. The cold chills and I miss the sun on the allotment but there’s one more task to do; I always cut my grape vine at this time of year.

grapevine in autumn

The tradition of pruning on Christmas Day is based on science. The wood should be cut when the sap is not rising and the coldest, deepest part of winter is the solstice around 21/22 December.

Astronomically, this is the when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. This is also science. The earth takes approx 365 days to travel the ecliptic orbit around the sun. Every day since mid summer, in the northern hemisphere the sun appears to rise about 1 degree further south of east. This weekend the sun will appear to rise at the same point for three mornings; days are short, nights long, darkness appears to have overthrown light. Then – on 25th December – it rises one degree north of east and the celebrations begin. The sun has risen, been reborn, returned, light of life, conqueror of darkness, sun of god. Winter solstice is where science and culture merge.

sunrise over the humber sunrise

In older times, the movement of the planets were interpreted as a celestial clock marking the optimum times for planting and harvesting. Some people still garden by the moon, many following the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Again this is science. No one can deny the gravitational pull of the moon on the tides so the relationship between planting and lunar phases makes sense. As the levels of ground water in the soil are pulled upwards during the full moon this is the optimum time to plant. Seeds and seedlings reach for the light and benefit from increased hydration. Cutting, pruning and harvesting all depend on the type of plant but it’s a biodynamic fact grape vines bleed so should only be cut when the risk of infection and death is lowest.

moon planting

Too often the older wisdoms have become lost. This is sad because we all need ways to connect with the earth beneath our feet. I like the space at the end of the year when email goes quiet and I love swapping presents with friends – but don’t buy into the surface presentation of self decking the halls in glittered tinsel. Holly and ivy is fine, tied with red and green ribbons, and never have artificial lights been so easy and pretty. See, I’m not all bah-humbug! My perfect day is on my terms. For me this time of year is about taking advantage of the lull to look back, look forward and take the opportunity to be myself. I love Christmas but I love it for the deeper significance of the turning wheel of the year. Best wishes for 2014. Blessed be.

flaubert's parrot

“Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.”  Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot



image of planting×507.jpg

modules flipchart resources flipchart engagement flip chartDoug suggests eight elements of digital literacies. If we interpret elements as characteristics this gives some idea of their complexity but not what they are. Maybe we need to look at categories. For example media digital literacies, information digital literacies, web digital literacies etc. But there are also digital literacies at subject level where the requirement for arts, science, food manufacture, nursing and social work might all derive from different learning styles and professional ways of working. Add digital scholarship,  digital pedagogy and digital identity and it’s clear you can have too much of a digital thing – there are too many digital literacies. We need an alternative taxonomy; a way to simplify the complexity.

all things digital flip chart

‘Digital literacy is a condition not a threshold.’*

Doug repeated this several times. But it’s only a condition if you are in the right place and time for it to happen. A shared starting point is necessary to begin the conversation. We might need thresholds after all. In Social Work in a Digital Society, I use threshold concepts to present digital literacies as social practices  Social Work in a Digital Society Threshold Concepts  Here each successive layer of understanding increases knowledge and alters practice. A threshold is like a starting line – a place to begin.

I think I get the concept  of digital literacies as a condition – being prepared to accept a digital dimension to your life and having the confidence to explore new digital landscapes – but access and support  is necessary as are specific goals and outcomes. In the way you need the alphabet to read, so you need basic tools to become digitally literate. The tools are the thresholds. We need to look at the building blocks of digital literacies like file formats and management, attachments and file sizes before RSS, building mashups and remixing code.

Maybe the best way to grasp digital literacies is to see them as the online equivalents of everything we do off-line.

To encourage and support confidence with digital ways of working means engaging with the affordances, finding the tipping points or thresholds which make a difference. These will be different for everyone but they are already out there. We just need to find them; like Doug’s quote from  William Gibson ‘ The future is already here, but is unevenly distributed.’


* Martin, A. (2006). ‘Literacies for the Digital Age: A Preview of Part 1’ in A. Martin and D. Madigan , eds, Digital Literacies for Learning. London: Facet Publishing, pp .3–25.

I’d forgotten I had this Badge although I thought there were more. I stayed with OLDS-MOOC eight weeks before my group faded and there was no one left to talk to. My OLDs MOOCing is still on Cloudworks So are the badges. I’ve retrospectively applied for some additional ones hoping no one will notice the time warp.

mozilla badge from OLDSMOOC

image from

The range of badges has expanded since OLDS-MOOC. I hadn’t appreciated their full functionality so learned a lot from listening to Doug Belshaw at Lincoln today. Most of Doug’s views on digital literacies I agreed with; there’s no one single definition – they are plural, individual and should be co-produced. I liked the Mozilla pedagogy; learning through doing and making and thought the Mozilla X-Ray Goggles was a cool way to get up close and personal with coding. Doug has an impressive online presence from his blogsite,  Phd thesisEssential Elements of Digital Literacies eBook and all his presentation text and graphics from today 

doug belshaw digital literacies

Tomorrow is a workshop with Doug looking at the development of a digital literacies module. It will be interesting to see how many aspects of digital literacies participants bring to the session eg media, information, text, web etc. The eclectic range of subjects covered by the phrase reflects the difficulties involved in trying to enclose or shape them in anyway.  Yet it needs to be done if we are to move away from an assumption model which overestimates individual confidence and competence working in digital environments. The longest journey begins with a single step and tomorrow may well be the first footprint.

The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies from Doug Belshaw

TEDxWarwick – Doug Belshaw – The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies (17.29)


digital age image

The human need to create, manage and control information and communication remains constant. It could be said books and Blackboard sites are different ways of doing the same thing and the gap between Gutenberg and Google is not as wide as it might first appear. In 370 BC Plato has Socrates bemoaning the introduction of writing as damaging to human memory.  In 1981 Neil Postman predicted the rise of cable television would result in us all amusing ourselves to death. Back in 15th century Europe the printing press caused such alarm the Catholic Church introduced censorship; all books were to be approved before publication. It’s not unusual for new technologies to be heralded with doom and gloom.

Marc Prensky’s concept of Digital Natives Digital Immigrants could come into this category. In 2001 he offered a provocative but enduring image of technology as the agent of changing brains and behaviors of young people. While his ideas have since been challenged the myth of the digital native remains persistent. Young people are imagined to be tech savvy while older ones struggle.

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) begins with Prensky’s Digital Natives Digital Immigrants paper. Online discussions get lively because everyone has a view on Prensky. Even colleagues initially unsure about contributing to virtual conversations find their nerves are partially overcome because they have something to say about the need to support individual digital literacies and how they cannot be taken for granted.

Confidence and competence with learner technologies cannot be anticipated. Early, mid or late career is no predictor of Blackboard use and engagement. There are older people comfortable with online collaborative working and younger ones unsure of how to insert a picture or attach a file. All roads lead to the same place. Digital literacies are too often assumed rather than addressed. Where technology plays a prominent role in people’s lives, it can create digital closeting which prevents awareness of the full spectrum of digital engagement. This is the myth of digital competence. More meaningful communication is needed between those who support, maintain and mandate the technology and those who use it as a part of their day to day teaching practice.


image from

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives Digital Immigrants. Available from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf



Following my confession on the breakdown of my relationship with technology, these are the messages Web Outlook are giving me this morning.

Error message error message

It seems to have broke in the night although it’s probably my laptop. The most common response from colleagues is a variation on one of the themes below:

  • I’ve never seen that error message before.
  • It’s working ok for me.
  • It must be you.
  • Have you checked your leads?
  • err nerr? you got a right ‘ull accent!

When you’re disconnected you realise the enormity of your net affair. How it affects every thing. This is only a partial break; not like when the network’s down and there’s nothing to do but tidy desks or wash up. Looking at the piles of unread papers on my floor, I could probably do with a few days network-free. But am careful what I wish for.

I’ve mobile options but not everyone has. Last week a colleague was surprised to find three students in their class were dependent on campus computers for internet access. The TELEDA Induction forum contains references to not wanting smart phones, fearing work/life balances would blur. Some make a point not to connect evenings and weekends. Others find devious means to send sneaky email on Saturdays while for many Sunday evening is the new Monday morning. The time of an email reveals the owls or early birds. Colleagues stay up late, get up early, some seem not to go to bed at all. How many times do you check your mobile phone? Is it the first or last thing when you get up in the morning? Do you take your phone to bed with you?

Opinion is divided. Some say it’s professional to keep a permanent eye on email, others want a work/life divide which is a sacrosanct. Like all digital literacies there’s no ‘one size fits all’ model; everyone needs to decide for themselves the most appropriate management of email or social media used for work purposes. There’s also the Blackboard discussion boards. If you’re moderating a group of students participating in an online activity, how often should you contribute? Is tutor input wanted? Can it be a blessing or a curse on the delicate process of encouraging shared practice online?

My email is back. Before catching up, here’s a video I might not have come across otherwise. A useful reminder of the value of virtual communication for sharing what really matters; how in the middle of terrible conditions the human spirit and the power of music survives.

The Landfill Harmonic Orchestra

It’s been a digitally illiterate week. Personally and vicariously. I’ve empathy for colleagues in buckets. Professional accreditation as a learning technologist (I’m ‘certified’ by the Association for Learning Technology) means nothing when something doesn’t work. In case you didn’t know, it’s a truth – universally acknowledged – where computers are concerned, if they can go wrong for me they will – and invariably do. ALT accreditation is – fortunately for me – more about pedagogy than hardware!

Is it me or the technology? Why are MobiGos all different? What controls the sound when speakers are activated but silent? Between a blank projector screen and your resources is the loneliest of places.  There isn’t always time to check everything is working. Sometimes you have to go on a wing and a prayer. I’ve had videos refuse to play, files refuse to open and colleagues report similar experiences. You want to use multimedia in public to enhance and engage but it can be risky. Stick with text I tell myself after each technical disaster and invariably ignore my own advice.

This week I tried to join an online meeting from my laptop. I forgot to check the hardware. As the meeting opened found I couldn’t use the webcam. Here is the message.

digital media error

Sometimes you can go into online meetings with sound only but not this time. The link to the meeting wouldn’t let me in. Ping! An email asking where I was. How embarrassing to suggest an online meeting and find yourself excluded. About 11 on a scale of 1-10. Ping! A text this time.  Skype was off, nothing was running in the background, I shut down, restart, same error message. In the meantime the meeting is going on without me and I’m feeling stupid.

The next day I want to demonstrate a WordPress blog in front of staff and students. I can’t log in. The error message has a yes/no option. I guess it’s asking if I want my details saving and say no. Try again – and again. Then I click yes and get to the dashboard, select the blog, have to log in again and the same error appears. By now time is running out. I log onto WordPress most days but where it mattered it wasn’t happening. Belatedly I realise it’s probably a browser issue but haven’t time to run advertised programmes to install Chrome. Again I feel stupid.

The scariest story this week came from colleagues who’d designed an interactive lecture using an online voting system to encourage participation. Everything worked fine during  practice but not in the lecture theatre. The software needed Chrome which wasn’t downloaded. Fortunately they had a Plan B. Unfortunately Plan B is a necessity.

Browser issues are increasingly common. Not everyone is browser aware. The response to the question ‘Which browser are you using?‘ is often ‘I don’t know‘. It’s easy to think you should but how? Where do we draw the baseline of digital competence?  Digital literacies are assumed yet the opposite is more often the case. The majority use a computer like they drive a car. Switch on the engine and go. Petrol in the tank and air in the tyres but that’s about it. Where do digital literacies belong? Are they an institutional or individual responsibility? Staff and students may be the best people to ask. Searching for the correct spelling of Mobigo I found this from student Stephen Fisher on

“There are alot of potential solutions and maybe asking lecturers what they feel most comfortable with and would want from the MobiGo’s could prove beneficial cause as computing students we tend to think about what we know about computers and such whereas the average user may be confused and not fully aware / trained in optimal use of systems.” 

Couldn’t have said it better myself.


PHd crisis? I don’t think I can manage another one :-( The process of narrowing down my research focus is taking forever. I’ve enough dead ends to populate a cemetery.

The solstice is coming. The coldest, darkest place in the year. This is the time…. for reflection. Reading my PhD log back to 23 January 2013 has depressed me. It confirms the absence of essential literature on digital pedagogy and staff development.  Surrounded with piles of books I haven’t read, and hundreds of thousands of words I’ll probably never use (I am prolific in one area at least), my reflection on the year’s progress isn’t reasuring. In spite of evenings and weekends of clandestine relationships. Me and my laptop. Me and the internet. Me and the accusations – Oh god, you’re not working again.

A year of trying to find myself philosophically. I have to face facts. My PhD has got lost. I need to rethink and restart.

My research is like water. It spreads. Isn’t contained. I may have said this before. For the past year I’ve been trying to get a foothold. An ontological and epistemological position. Some of it has been positive but I haven’t got there yet. My feet are still looking for their philosophical standing place.

Positives include rediscovering postmodernism. When academics began their deconstruction of reality, the internet didn’t exist, Today digital reality is endemic yet few people talk about postmodernism.  I’d like to apply a postmodern lens to the presentation of self online, to reconstruct my 3P model of Professional, Personal and Public identities, but this would be a research byproduct, not the primary function.  I need a practical solution to embedding research into my practice.

Times change. I shifted my PhD focus from the community (year 1) to the HE sector (year 2) to my practice (year 3). Maybe I wrong footed myself from the start because with every passing year the panic has increased. Maybe I’m simply not good enough. I wanted a research topic which informed and enhanced my practice. What’s wrong with that? Not finding my doctoral feet feels like a failure. I’ve read the books, gone to the workshops and study schools, but still can’t find a fit. I talk about digital exclusion and people switch off. Maybe it’s the way I say it. I don’t know. But exclusion and its invisibility is my thing and at the start of this year I thought I’d found a research space to slip into.

With regard to teaching and learning, I knew engagement with a VLE was an under-researched area. The VLE is unpopular, maligned as clunky and linear, unfairly compared to more visual software like Wordpress, used predominantly as a document repository and largely ignored as a tool for enabling and enhancing learning. Embedding virtual pedagogy into my PhD would not only shift my practice from being research-informed to research-engaged, it would show case the VLE’s pedagogic potential. I’m pragmatic. I work in the present where the application of theory to practice matters. As does the day-to-day experience of staff and students doing the best they can with the tools they have.

Recent discussions around digital education and the VLE at Lincoln seem to confirm I’ve got lost in the PhD landscape – again. The sense of loss is reinforced through Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) which stretches use of Blackboard and reminds me of a need to embed digital literacies into staff development and teacher education as well as the curriculum. This is where I want my research to be focused but I’m not sure how to get there. My action research methodology needs grounding in the relevant literature. It’s looking like I need the end of year break to begin a new review with a focus on staff development in higher education, on the pragmatic and pedagogical aspects of digital education rather than the political. What value can be extracted from failure? Once more, I’m about to find out.

Hello laptop. Hello internet. Do you come here often?

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) begins with a reading of Digital Natives Digital Immigrants. Written in 2001, Prensky’s paper offers a provocative but enduring image of technology as the agent of changing brains and behaviors of young people. I’m interested in the persistence of this myth of the digital native. In particular the conceptual leap it assumes between access and understanding. It reminds me of the medieval helpdesk video (2.44) direct link

I like the line at 1.38 ‘When you’re used to paper rolls it takes some time to convert to turning the pages of a – book.’ Consider the conversion from pen and paper to a keyboard and screen. Technology is about people not machines. the problem is those promoting machines forget they’re the minority.

Put the word native into a thesaurus. It offers citizen, inhabitant, dweller, resident. Language is like yeast. It grows. Meaning can be cultivated but the surrounding conditions must be right for change. Today the term native can be defined as to live in one place, to be positioned or located. Today we are all digital natives. One way or another we engage with technology.  Prensky’s distinction needs revision.  The dividing lines have changed.

The physical ability to use a computer and access the internet, the cognitive knowledge of how to maximise usage and stay safe online are 21st century literacies. Society evolves. It rarely jumps. The gap between Gutenberg and Google is not so wide after all. They are different ways of doing the same things. Communicating. Disseminating. Excluding.

The risk of the myth of the digital native is less about young people born into a technology enabled world, it’s about what happens when they grow up. It’s less about education having to shift its parameters to cope with changing brains and behaviours. It’s about remembering and respecting human diversity and difference. The risk is those who work with technology are losing this memory. As Prensky’s digital natives become creators of 21st century reality, the risk – where technology is concerned – is they might not have the memory in the first place.

If technology has a prominent role in your life, and the lives of family, friends and colleagues, you become protected behind digital walls. This digital closeting prevents you from seeing how the daily struggle with technology is the rule not the exception. This is particularly evident within higher education where those who teach and support learning are employed for their subject specialisms not digital literacies.

Prensky calls for the world to adapt to the requirements of the digital natives but I think this needs to be reversed. Those born into the world of google specs not gutenberg text, whose digital parameters mean they’re unable to see beyond a browser window, need to go and talk to real people face-to-face and find out how the other half live.

Half? Maybe more. Those for whom technology is a daily challenge and struggle probably accounts for most of us.

Crap Town, Chav Town, now we’re going to be Cultural town – and about time too. We can hold our own with anywhere else in the UK; we have the Museum quarter, High Street, the Deep, Town Docks Museum, Ferens Art Gallery, Fruit, the university, college and more. Bring it on and let’s hear it for ‘ull!

Warning – longer than usual blog post – quite apt considering the title!

These past months I’ve known information overload. The era of abundance. The smallness of my blog in the massiveness of digital landscapes reinforces my insignificance. Ionesco’s ‘God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself’ sums up my existential angst at the impossibility of finding a single phd path with my name on it. My theory has to fit. The choice is important. This summer, as well as work overload, I developed inthereority complex, suffered headaches, blurred vision and keyboarditis. It seemed everyone else had their theoretical place and I was the only one lost, still struggling to find my philosophical home. Theory envy is not a healthy place to be.

Then I came across a paper called The ‘Weariness of the Flesh’. Reflections on the life of the mind in an era of abundance *I very nearly didn’t. Biblical references don’t do it for me but it was Solomon and he was wise so it couldn’t do any harm could it? Bible texts depend on translation – much has got lost over the years – but the authors used this (unreferenced) version  ‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’(Ecclesiasts 12.12) What the old king was saying 3000 years ago, when presumably books were in short supply but who am I to be pedantic, there is certainly such a thing as having too much information.

The paper assumes internet access. Statements like ‘everyone who so chooses will be able to….’ P 44, it will be ‘technically and economically feasible for everyone [to document their existence online]. Seizing this possibility will simply be a matter of choice.’ P45 had me reaching for the highlighter pen. Then I read the following:

The issues in the first decades of the knowledge-driven era concern a new abundance and a new and perhaps growing disequilibrium between then raw materials of learning production (information resources) and the other factors [staff and their learning technologies] of learning production.’ (Gandel et al 2004: 46)

Writing pre Web 2.0 and the development of user generated content and file sharing though blogs, wikis and other forms of social media the paper calls for a more holistic approach to scholarship and learning in an internet age, one which addresses individual engagement. The metaphor used to describe this holistic approach is to view information systems as a form of ecosystem.

‘Therefore, we need to take a more holistic approach, one that recognizes the interconnection of information resources and of the individuals who create and use these resources. A metaphor that has been used to describe this holistic approach is to veiw information systems as a form of ecosystem – an information ecology.’ (p46)

I’d noted the recurrence of ecology in a number of papers (Saljo, Selwyn, Facer etc). I liked its emphasis on relationships and the interconnectedness of things. For me it’s the social relations between staff and their technology – where digital literacies are individual and personal like an extension of our personalities – which was not only an under-researched area but the one I wanted to explore through participatory action research.  What’s also missing from the research into learning technology are greater connections with the social impact of the internet. There seems a need for re-examining what it means to learn in an age of abundant information.   As Saljo says, in this new ecology of digital technology, perhaps ‘…what we need to learn and remember, and how we do it, will be different to what we are used to.’ (2009:57)

After reading about the weariness of the flesh, I felt less tired. Links began to appear. The abundance paper referenced Nardi and O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.

 ‘The word ecology is important here because it conveys the sense of urgency about the need to take control of information systems – as Nardi and O’Day explain, ‘to inject our own values and needs into them so that we are not overwhelmed by some of our technical tools.’ (Gandel et al 2004:46)

Chapter 4 of Information Ecologies can be read on FirstMonday  Location of technology is described as its habitation, its suggested the word ecology represents diversity rather than sameness (diversity being integral to inclusion) and with information ecologies, attention is less about the technology but more about the human relations the technology serves. So far, so promising. Then I noticed a reference to Neil Postman, quoted many times in these online ramblings for his suggestion the rise in ‘entertainment’ media will result in citizens amusing themselves to death – unquestioning their death by media. I don’t have a television. My small act of resistance. Postman, founder of the Media Ecology Association and influenced by McLuhan, made explicit the relationships between media and social control. He described the media as imposing certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, specifications which were more often ‘…implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment but merely a machine.’ (Postman. 1970)

Postman says media ecology sets out to make these ideological specifications explicit. This is achieved through uncovering the ‘…roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.’

Calling for critical thinking to be taught in schools, Postman writes ‘Let us suppose as Jefferson did, and much later John Dewey, … that the best way for citizens to protect their liberty is for them to be encouraged to be skeptical.’ His five suggestions for teaching critical thinking included the ‘art and science of asking questions’ and to teach ‘technology education’ because:

‘…in the next ten years, everyone will know how to use computers. But what they will not know, as none of us did from everything from automobiles to movies to television, is what are the psychological, social, and political effects of new technologies.’ 

Reading Freiere, Giroux and bell hooks, I was inspired by idea of education as the practice of freedom. Since writing Chapter 6. Invisible Publics: Higher Education and Digital Exclusion in Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University I’ve seen higher education as a primary awareness raiser of digital exclusion with social responsibility for promoting digitally inclusive practice. I knew my approach to my phd was via critical theory but I wasn’t sure what this would look like. There have been a number of calls for critical theory to explain the gap between the rhetoric and practice of elearning (Feenberg, Selwyn, Hall, Freisen) but also calls for examining the performative nature of learning (Saljo), critical pedagogy through a postmodern lens (Giroux) and a need for redesigning the education curriculum to make it appropriate for a digital age (Facer, Saljo, Giroux).

I am drawn to the words resilience and hope. For me, the pedagogy of online learning is a Pedagogy of Uncertainty. As always, these are reflections on my reading and subject to change. What interests me is the linkages, often unanticipated and found in unexpected places. Eventually I’m sure my theoretical approach will take shape. It’s already lurking within the writings of Feenberg, Giroux, Saljo and Freisen and of course Gandel et al – without whose reflections on the weariness of flesh in an era of abundance these connections would never have occurred.


* Gandel, P. B., Katz, R. N. and Metros, S. (2004) Weariness of the Flesh’. Reflections on the life of the mind in an era of abundance Educause Review. March/April 2004:4151.

Nardi, B. and O’Day, V. (1999) Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. MIT

Postman, N. (1970) The Reformed English Curriculum. in A.C. Eurich, A. C. ed., High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education

Postman, N. (1885) Amusiing Ourselves to Death. Methuen

Postman, N. (1999) Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. Vintage; First Trade edition

I’ve feel I’ve misused my time. It’s the ‘…ologies’ wot dunnit. I can’t find my epistemic position. I’ve gone round in circles – ending back where I began every time. I can’t get started with my data collection because I can’t position myself. As soon as I look at positivist/interpretivist paradigms I glaze over. Whichever approach I adopt there’ll be someone, somewhere telling me it’s wrong. I don’t have a problem with theoretically underpinning my research topic; it’s what lies underneath is missing. The broader definitions of social reality are getting me down.

I’m investigating the social relations between staff and technologies for teaching and learning. My rationale derives from theories supporting the social construction of technology and the potential for resistance against dominant ideologies which create inequality – in this case digital exclusion. Rather than dismiss the technology of the digital diploma mills, lets explore how usage can be more socially responsible and appropriate for an equitable higher education. I want to get critical but I’m not sure how to adopt critical theory without being Marxist and I can’t find a non-Marxist space which fits. As soon as I look at the Frankfurt School; Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin etc I don’t know where to begin. The literature is full of reinterpretations of their work. The School was predominantly white, western and male, located within a specific culture which has since moved on. They were products of their time. Like Freud.

Reading One Dimensional Man (Marcuse, 1964) Amusing Ourselves to Death (Postman, 1985) and the Culture of Narcissism (Lasch, 1969) I can see persuasive political, cultural and psychoanalytic theories – each manifest in the internet which postdates them – but still I can’t pin myself down. I like Butler, Foucault and Baudrillard too. As a writer, the calls for an alternative feminist language from Irigaray and Kristeva influenced me in the 1990’s as did discourse analysis. I’m critical of the social construction of inequality, be it through gender, race, disability, age, religion, but nothing exists in isolation does it? Everything connects as the postmodernists claimed it did. In a fragmented, bricolage sort of way. Where are the socially responsible alternatives to Marxism? Does every critique have its roots in  Highgate cemetery?

There’s no getting away from it. I have to get philosophical.

Ontology and epistemology go together. You can’t have one without the other. Ontology is about reality; it refers to the subject of existence or the nature of the world. All the heavy stuff!

Epistemology is how your ontology is understood. This is knowledge itself; what constitutes knowledge and how new knowledge is created. The good thing about a phd is this can be personal; no one insists on a single answer – or at least they shouldn’t. The idea is you find your own, a bit like deciding on a religion but instead of a traditional deity, it’s the academic philosophers who adopt the role of defining existence. The trouble is there’s so many of them and they all have different ideas.

The starting positions are interpretivist or positivist. Interpretivism privileges individual ways of being in the world while  positivism can be seen as more of a mass market approach. Our choice becomes our theoretical perspective. This duality is a simplification. There are cross overs. When Edward Bernays adopted his Uncle Freud’s understanding of individual psyche to create and promote mass consumerism – using psychoanalytic techniques to persuade people to respond to want rather than need – he blurred the lines between positivist and interpretative approaches.  Bernays created propaganda; the science of persuading individuals to behave as a single entity. The nature of reality can be complex.

To capture ontology and epistemology on the page we choose a  research methodology. Here is another duality – the qualitative and quantitative debate. Our methodology is informed by our theoretical perspective. Now it starts to get heavy because this is where philosophy has complicated the available alternatives. It’s no wonder the ancient greeks were so sure of themselves; they simply had less choice. The enlightenment philosophers have a lot to answer for.

It’s not enough to rely on instinct or intuition with regard to the nature of existence; you have to back it up too. I can’t go into a viva and say my allotment proves to me the existence of something beyond the power of science to recreate. When people challenge my chosen theoretical perspective, I have to be able to counter it with…… what? More theory?

If my perspective is theoretical then ultimately there are no correct answers. For every possible theory, there’re a whole host of people dedicating academic lifetimes to pointing out its weaknesses. At this point it would be easy to adopt a postmodern standpoint – but the danger with postmodernism is it can theorise itself into non-existence. If there’s one thing I ‘m sure of in my phd travels, it’s this. I’m critical about social inequality. Most of all I’m critical about discriminatory structures which create exclusion in a digital society. I’m with Tim Berners Lee. The world wide web and the internet contains the potential for democratisation of access  – through the flexibility of messages carried via digital media to be customised to suit personal  need. Herein lies issues of power. Of possibilities and resistance and the role of higher education to create social futures where digital public spheres are built on inclusive practice.

To get critical I need a solid theoretical perspective. To avoid getting lost in research jargon, which in itself can become a language of exclusion. I need an analogy – a personal, interpretative and qualitative viewpoint.  As always for me, nature has the answer. In the way I understand binary constructions of language – where meaning derives from what an object is not –  as in a tree is a tree because it is not a bush, a shrub or a hedgerow, I turn to the woods. Without individual trees there would be no forests.  I have to find my favourite birch in among the oaks and ash, knowing I love them too. Poplars and cypress  are out. So are the massive sequoias.  I prefer trees offering shade with branches and leaves which rustle in the wind. Then I have to find others who agree and support me in my world view of trees. Here is a starting point. Lets walk in the woods.

This research should not be about ‘teaching educationalists to use technology’ but being critical about the role of the university as a site of knowledge production and negotiation. HE is accommodating new technologies but of necessity the process needs to be critiqued. (supervisor feedback earlier this year)

After a summer of discontent with theory, I’ve decided where my research is located; it will be pedagogically as much as critically informed.

The relationship between the university and learning technology is open to critique but my research remains within the discursive practices of ‘teaching educationalists to use technology’. Digital-first policies are increasing pressure to shift to blended and distance learning. There is an urgent need to find ways to adapt traditional lecture and seminar formats to online delivery. Not the passive transmission model of powerpoint and word repositories, but the building of genuinely experiential learning based on shared practice and collaborative group work. Time to argue about the politics of alternative technologies is running out. We need to make better pedagogical use of what we already have; to reinvent design and delivery which supports critical thinking and reflective practice while acknowledging internet access is changing what it means to know and to learn in a digital age (CIBER, Wolf, Saljo) Ecology as well as pedagogy is required.

I get nervous about calls for a radically different approach to education. While agreeing the need for curriculum resilience within fluid knowledge landscapes, I have less confidence in alternatives such as Edupunk’s contested DIY model as portrayed by Kamenetz  Pathways and guidance might be more effective than freedom in an unfettered internet. Rather than move away from the university in Edufactory style,  my research will investigate how to do different and better with what is already in place. Revolution is not the only response.

TELEDA was designed to be progressive. Resources include signposts towards critical pedagogy and social inclusion, learning activities are collaborative and communicative and technology is presented as potentially divisive. Participants are continually encouraged to consider inclusion.  My approach is embedded in existing critiques of technology for learning. These include Feenberg’s call to analyse technologies as historically situated (1999) and restructuring the dynamics of technological design and development as social and political processes (2005) and Selwyn’s theorising of educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concern (2010) Time again this summer I’ve returned to Foucault and distributed flows of power through discursive practice. I’ve discovered the places where Giroux has applied postmodern ideas to teaching and learning and where education represents the practice of freedom and a pedagogy of hope (Freire, hooks, Giroux). The work of Warshcauer, Seale, Selwyn and Facer, van Dijk and Seyeart on critical approaches to digital divides and exclusions continue to inspire me.

My PAR will interrogate TELEDA, for better or worse, It will focus on how virtual engagement for staff and students need not represent the automation of teaching but offer support for the higher level thought processes integral to a university education. Here I find Friesen’s critical approach to the myths of elearning and the work of Reeves and Harrington on research into learning design to be useful. The growing recognition of space between the rhetoric and the practice of elearning (Conole, Oliver, Feenberg, Reeves, Harrington etc etc) is supporting a rethinking of the translation of subject disciplines from the face to face to virtual design and delivery. Reeves et al suggest six possible theoretical bases for this research. I have chosen this one

‘Researchers with postmodern goals are focused on examining the assumptions underlying contemporary educational programmes and practices with the ultimate goal of revealing hidden agendas and empowering disenfranchised minorities. Although increasingly evident among researchers with multicultural, gender or political interested, research in the postmodern tradition is rare within the field of educational technology.’ (Reeves et al 2010: 60)

So here it is. For over 20 years I’ve worked with technology for education. I was there at the beginning – from pre internet to dial up, MOOs and MUDs to Second Life, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook.  I’ve lived and breathed in the spaces between the rhetoric and reality of virtual learning. Those spaces are now being made public and while the critique is essential, so is the need to find new ways to move forward. I believe this research will combine all the essential elements. I’ve gathered the work of critical theorists who speak of social responsibility and inclusion and am ready to construct my PAR framework for establishing a foundation for truly inclusive virtual teaching and learning, one which may appear more pedagogical than political but which nevertheless enables the rethinking required to build progressive online higher education appropriate for a digital age.


see PhD page for full references

On Friday 30th August, it all came to an end. The University of Lincoln Hull Campus closed. Its final year in rented space on the University of Hull campus finished.  Nothing seems to have marked the occasion.

So… lest we forget

The University of Lincoln has history north of the Humber. It’s heritage is a direct line to the Hull School of Art which opened in 1861.   In 1976, the School of Art merged with other colleges to become Hull College of Higher Education. This became Humberside Polytechnic, gaining university status, between 1990 and 1992 when it was known as the University of Humberside.  Renamed the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside in 1996, it became the University of Lincoln in 2001.

  • The Virtual Campus – precursor to Blackboard, Web CT et al – was built there, pioneering the concept of virtual learning environments long before they became famous.
  • Work Based Learning was developed there.
  • Achievers in Excellence and Aim Higher set the standard for widening participation with local schools and colleges.
  • Getting Started began on the George Street city centre campus.

Colleagues with memories longer than mine will no doubt remember more than I do. Please feel free to comment.

So many people like myself were supported to return to education at Inglemire Lane and Cottingham Road as well as Queen’s Gardens and the Old Town.  Our lives would be very different without the opportunities to study and develop in these places.

I feel sad to know it’s all come to an end, not with a bang, not even a whimper.

Shhh…. don’t tell anyone but I have postmodern leanings. I’m a writer. Words matter. Barthes has always been important to me. However much I craft I know I have to let go. Interpretation is personal. All words are imbued with alternatives yet language is all we have to produce meaning.

‘We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down.’ *

Postmodernism was always going to be contentious. It doesn’t even exist in any graspable form. It’s more a lens for seeing reality – or challenging what we might think is real in the first place.  A postmodernist lens has value for viewing digital realities – which are always second hand and can only ever be simulations of the real. Virtual reality and postmodernism go well together. Each time we log onto we become cyborg. We exhibit increasingly hybrid identities. The internet encourages performance. No one knows you’re a dog or a cat. You can have one persona or a dozen. Be anonymous. Be whatever you want to be. The categories of social attribution are empty. Fractured identities and the bricolage of digital communication platforms epitimise the postmodern condition.  I fell for these ideas long before new digital stages for performativity were invented. Researching gender through a postmodern lens taught me how to think in spectrums, understand the social construction of sex.  When it comes to social reality, I’ve never been one for fixed meanings.

Political sociology and revolutionary Marxism has no time for postmodernism. The harsh economic realities of 21st century favour the resurgence of popular politics. The dismantling of the welfare state and digital-first policies are creating new dividing lines where social difference is stark. ‘Postmodernism is dead!’ claim those who never liked it in the first place. It has fallen out of favour. I know this. Criticisms include being pretentiously intellectual, elitist, a showground for those with nothing better to do than climb inside themselves – anally.

Chomsky is one of many who has viciously attacked postmodernism Just a month ago he called it nothing more than the inflation of humanities, where advocates set themselves in competition with the theoretical physicists and mathematicians, the practitioners of real science as opposed to the ranting polysyllabics of the postmodern scholar’s empty posturing (Chomsky’s words – not mine). You have to ask what lies behind such a savage indictment. Chomskyesk polemic appears to be saying science is the only method when there is as much to be learned from myth as math.

When it comes to the day to day social realities of the use and abuse of learning technology, postmodernism isn’t going to hold up. Its strength is more philosophical than practical. I need to be grounded in social reality. I’m reading Feenberg’s critical theory of technology – instrumentalisation. I’m not sure what Chomsky would say to its polysyllabic title but it holds promise. I’m working my way into the gap between rhetoric and the practice of digital education, the space where technology is the site of tension between freedom and restraint. It feels like the road less travelled. I  retain my postmodern roots. Academia is a world of parallel universes. Contradictory theories compete. Diametrically opposed ideas clash. There is room for everyone. Digital education as the practice of freedom has to be multidisciplinary, multi theoretical. There is space for all ways of seeing. Activism for social equality and justice should be a secular enterprise.

* Neils Bohr  Quoted in Philosophy of Science Vol. 37 (1934), p. 157, and in The Truth of Science : Physical Theories and Reality (1997) by Roger Gerhard Newton, p. 176

Philosophy is tough stuff. We all experience life but when it comes to the consideration of knowledge, reality and existence, we tend to hand responsibility over to others. Instead of thinking it out for ourselves, we let those considered to be expert advise us on the nature of our own scientific and social reality. The P in PhD changes this. It’s about getting your hands dirty. It involves research into yourself as much as your chosen subject.

How do you know what you know? Seven is a magic number. These seven single-syllable words sum up the hugeness of doctoral research. Deceptively simple, they’re a doorway to a different world. A multi-syllable landscape with different ways of seeing and being. Working out your ontology and epistemology and defending your position in the face of opposing views, creates confidence. A PhD is an opportunity to confirm your world view. It does this by shifting you from what Larkin calls the unique distance of isolation – with all its subjective connotations – to a more objective reality, one shared by those with similar ways of being in the world.

There are no definitive answers. The first thing philosophy teaches is how life views differ. The choice is confusing but you need to find a path through the philosophy forest. A PhD is an authenticated journey. Taking up a position and defending it. Locating yourself with authority; becoming research engaged and informed. At first, if you want to explore a seemingly practical topic, like online learning, the P for Philosophy feels like the wrong direction. If you lean towards a world view diametrically opposed to your supervisor, you’re in for a bumpy ride. But when you read something which resonates, discover similar but authenticated interpretations of the complexity of social reality, it begins to fall into place. Althusser writes about appellation; the process of recognition whereby we are hailed by a subject position. It’s a bit like this. You collect similarities and discard differences. Eventually you’ll reach a place where you can justify your own approach. It takes time. The literature review will help but ultimately you’re on your own.

It can be useful to think of the PhD as a ritual or rite of passage; one where enough people have survived to be reassured it is possible.

This has been the summer of my discontent with theory. I’ve read myself into a black hole. Dipping into this, that and other. Getting lost and fed up. Nothing fit. The problem was caused through tension between education technology as affordance or automation. I have sympathy for both views but I’m more postmodern than Marxist. Above all I’m pragmatic.

There is a need to analyse technologies as historically situated (Feenberg 1999) and theorise educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concerns (Selwyn 2010). I don’t deny this. But digital-first policies are putting increasing pressure on digital engagement. Shifts to blended and distance learning mean we have to adapt traditional lecture and seminar formats to online delivery – now! There is an urgent need to do better with what we already have.

This has been called ‘business as usual’; an uncritical approach which risks ‘co-option of technology as progress to a neoliberal educational agenda’. Business as usual is a failure to see how ‘…promises of educational technology clouds or ignores the complexity of socio cultural realities.’ (Hall, 2011:275)

I would suggest a different interpretation. There is choice. Rail against ‘the consumption of a specific set of tools that are owned or celebrated by dominant players’ (ibid) or revisit those tools to ask how best can they offer opportunities for engagement in a knowledge based society. Debate ‘socially necessary labour time and commodification of human activity’ or choose to make the best of what we have; focus on building a digital education which is pedagogically informed, scholarly and inclusive (Seale, Selwyn, Facer, Feenberg, Freisen, Saljo, Garrison, Eubanks, Reeves, Laurillard, Giroux – full references to follow in PhD blog page),

Business as usual is welcoming new and existing cohorts of students onto campus to start or continue their higher education experience. Business as usual is exploring ways to transform lecture and seminar content to online environments for students unable to attend in person.  Business as usual is about working within the limitations of institutional vles to enhance tutor practice and student learning. Business as usual recognises digital education is an opportunity to rethink and redefine pedagogy for the 21st century.

This is not a well trodden path but it’s one we need to take. The technology of the world wide web is changing what it means to learn. The internet offers alternative ways of knowing and being. We need to know more about these. We need to increase awareness of digital divides and their implications. Higher education is where a difference can be made. Teacher education is where the difference begins.

The rhetoric of educational technology was always wrong. It does not cut costs, will not transform, do more for less, or improve efficiency. Effective digital education is time consuming, resource heavy and expensive. It’s challenging and demanding.  But I believe it can work. It doesn’t have to impact ‘…skills and productivity in the production of surplus value, which can then be used to reproduce capital and capitalist social relations.’ (ibid:277) For me, digital education can in itself be the practice of freedom (hooks, Freire, Giroux). Critical of digital divides. Supportive of equality of access, inclusive design, awareness of diversity and difference, digital education can widen access to genuinely enhancing higher education experiences. The technology is a tool. It’s how we use it which counts. Educational design research is where my Phd is located and this is where it stays.


Electronic is the commonest answer. Which is misleading. It implies the two go together when they don’t; electronic has nothing to do with learning. elearning requires a new pedagogy. An inherent problem is the way existing educational theories have been moulded to fit.  They won’t. They can’t. Not only does face to face practice not sit well within virtual environments, to create workable online educational experiences is to accept the reality of elearning engagement is the diametric opposite to how elearning has been presented.

Conventional rhetoric tells us elearning has the power to transform. The HEFCE ‘E’ could well include easy, efficient, effective, extended, economic – effortless? I made that last one up but the promotion of elearning as the answer to reducing costs and doing more for less implies a seamless transition from the traditional classroom to a virtual one. The anomaly – and the true reality – is elearning means increased costs and doing much much more – in terms of the design and delivery of learning activities as well as the technical, administrative and professional support systems which are all part of an effective elearning framework.

What would I call elearning?

Enigmatic? Exacting? Exigent?

The complexities of managing online learning are enormous, even Elephantine – as in the problem of the Elephant in the room. The resourcing the time, space, place and skillsets – all essential components. The real costs of elearning are so big no one dare address them. You could call it Expensive learning. Without a dedicated team containing a blend of technical and pedagogical understanding of digital literacies, digital scholarship and digital ways of working, elearning will continue to appeal to a narrow student base, retention will remain poor and the quality of online resources be an ongoing cause for concern.

As if this were not enough, elearning privileges those with means of access and the capability of using that access appropriately. If you are limited by an outdated browser, run an old operating system, live in an area with a poor connection speeds or depend on assistive technology, elearning will be problematic.

Out of all the possibilities the biggest e of all remains E for EXCLUSIVE.

Theory has layers. You have to get into it. Up close and personal.  It’s not enough to be an observer. You need to read, reflect, write, read some more, and more, and more….

From no where has come a ‘blast from the past’. A memory from The Teachings of Don Juan.  Finding a theory is like finding your spot on the porch. Carlos Castaneda writes:

He [Don Juan] asked me to remember the time I had tried to find my spot, and how I wanted to find it without doing any work because I had expected him to hand out all the information. If he had done so, he said, I would never have learned…. If, however, he had told me where it was, I would never have had the confidence needed to claim it as true knowledge. Thus, knowledge was indeed power. (1968: 20)

Theory isn’t fixed. It’s like wearing glasses. My prescription won’t work for you – yours won’t work for me. I don’t like your choice of frames but I can see how they suit you.

Theory offers explanations but I’ve found it difficult to pin myself onto the theory map. So I turned it round. Instead of trying to find a theory for me, I started to read about the theory searching of others.  Here I discovered the layers. A triad of them. I like threes. They’re manageable and magic.

When it comes to research on learning technology, approaches range from theoretical absence, theories about learning and theories which adopt critical social perspectives. Within each layer are strata; multiple perspectives, all with their own separate theoretical approach and continually evolving and reforming – like amoebas. As you read, reflect and read some more… certain stands begin to emerge as structures. These form a framework enabling you to position your reading. Here, there, and everywhere – into the different perspectives – individual, institutional, national. All contained within visible and invisible discursive practices through which power and control are exercised. Yes, it does all comes down to power and control. Foucault remains relevant.

Once the layers take on a broader social and cultural identity, the PhD begins to take shape. Ontology makes sense. The being, seeing and positioning of yourself has to happen. You need to decide who you are. Find your purpose. Locate your spot of power.

Castenada, C. (1968) The teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui way of knowledge. London: Penguin; New edition (22 Feb 1990)

I learned about feminism the hard way. Through divorce. There’s nothing like custody to make you appreciate where discrimination lies. Today we face a mass of social and economic problems. Capitalism takes as much as it offers. The state of the NHS, the future of higher education, the media manipulation of welfare claimants are all cause for concern. Yet a life in the UK remains an aspiration for people across the world. We have space to campaign.  Call for greater equality and social justice. Higher education can challenge and change. Maybe not the world but enough small parts to make a difference. The danger is seeing class as the only discrimination. A Marxist framework was useful for rising awareness of gender divides, but gender continues to divide society, deeply and silently. Economics is only one strand of the ideological oppression of women.

My feminist education was less work based than home based. Women find it hard to separate historical materialism from biology. Divorced, I faced the dual predicament of childcare plus the one issue feminism has never answered – toilet cleaning. The reality of women and work rarely sit well together. Work is problematic for mothers – regardless of their status. Whether married, single, divorced or widowed, without a support structure, usually made up of other women, the greatest load of childcare, housework and toilet cleaning is in the female domain. It has always been like this.

I fell out with feminism in the late 20th century because it denigrated the role of motherhood. In prioritising career opportunities and equal pay for women, the status of stay at home mother was downgraded. When it came to domesticity as a career choice, there was no sisterhood. I was lucky. I worked because I wanted to as well as needed to. At the same time I returned to my own education. These were the days of Women’s Studies where feminism was often theoretical. Political activism is safer on paper. In terms of bringing issues of ideological oppression of women into the public domain, there is much to thank the academics and campaigners for, but feminism took away the woman’s right to choose. It privileged work over housewifery. If feminism had invented, patented and given away self-cleaning toilets – every home should have one – it would have been a significant step towards gender equality. For every man who claims to be a toilet cleaner there are a thousand who’ve never wielded a loo brush in their lives. Power politics are played out not only in government but in the rooms of the home; the bedroom, dining room, kitchen room, bathroom.

Cultural attitudes have deep roots. Men still patronize. Women still get paid less for doing more. The ideology hasn’t changed. Gender discrimination is a powerful social tool and I don’t see how Marxism will change this. Who will clean the toilets after the revolution?

At this time of year, when colleagues are applying for staff development funding to do postgraduate research, I look back on how far I’ve come on my own PhD journey. If words were miles I’d have crossed the world by now.  But they’re not. In the PhD landcape I haven’t gone very far.

The vastness is unimaginable. Every layer brings reading of a scary proportions. Like dreams with too much to fit in the suitcase, a new PhD seems uncontainable. You have to learn to live with overspill. Books on the floor. Papers in the bedroom.  Hard drives get confused. Dropbox overflows.  All topics of conversation are miraculously related back to your research topic or some quirk in a paper you’ve read which resonates. You can’t get it out of your head. It needs to be shared.  Like a martini. Any time, any place, anywhere. While everyone else has a life, you only have an uncompleted PhD future.

To anyone starting doctoral research part-time be warned, you will regret it – and unless the subject is close up and personal, you’re unlikely to complete. Strategic management of time and subject is your only hope for survival.  Focus, motivation, incentive and very understanding family, friends and colleagues are essential. The PhD will move in. Take over. Your head will have two compartments. One work. One PhD. Everything else will be evicted or move out on its own accord.  Think of it like a partner – always there but sulking in the corner because you’re not paying attention.

Like a dog, a PhD is not for Christmas, it’s for life and August is the cruellest month. The end of July is full of colleague-speak about time off;  vacations/staycations or chill. The start of September is review and reflect on said time off.  August is miserable. August has become the busiest month. VLE upgrade, Getting Started and TELEDA eportfolio submissions all arrive together. There is much work to be done.

I don’t research well at work. I prefer the home office. Getting on the read-think-write cycle without encountering real world distractions.  Did I say a PhD is the most anti-social of occupations? The problem is the process of engagement is cumulative. When the going gets tough (is it ever any different?) it can take days to get your head in the right place. It’s a cognitive thing. Fitting the world inside a brain the size of a grapefruit is hard work. There is never enough time. Never enough of the right time.  Which is where this post began. Time and distance travelled. Not enough of either. I should be chasing my still elusive theories rather than blogging…

When people tell you part-time is tough they’re not exaggerating. The chances are they’re not even being tough enough. The only way to find out what it’s really like is to do it. But there is hope. In spite of the ever-increasing circles, setbacks and frustrations, I know it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. When you read something which resonates or talk to people who care about the same things it reinforces your sense of purpose. Get the power balance right and doctoral research offers real opportunities for advocacy and working towards sustainable change. It really is about being what you want to see in the world. A PhD is one way to experience this. So good luck. Because you’ll need it and I hope you also have a fantastic journey getting there. Just don’t wear a pedometer.


Inthereority complex

August 11, 2013 | PhD  |  Leave a Comment

Theory. A lens to see the world. A framework for making sense.  I’m ok with the theory of theory. But whose theory is it and how ‘big’ should it be? All encompassing or subject specific? Reinventing the university or enhancing teaching and learning? Does education have to be critical? Should I be aiming to change the world or can I start with a smaller part of it?  My research topic is teaching and learning online. It’s small in the scheme of things – but with potential to grow, be subversive, challenging, empowering. Social justice concerns me – but my research seeks to improve virtual practice – for now.  I can write issues of digital division and exclusion into the curriculum, make inclusive practice part of the business of content development and online delivery.  This is power. An example of a Freirean approach to the politics of education, where the enabling and disabling affordances of technology constitute my political agenda. In an increasingly digital society, to be shut out from the platforms of the public sphere is to be marginalised. Disempowered. Where the university is a place for critical knowledge production, a platform for debating oppositional ideas, it is also the place for raising awareness of silence; a platform for knowing and challenging exclusion rather than replicating and reinforcing exclusive behaviours.

Questions with no answers. Should my theory address wider discursive frameworks of power or focus on contemporary perspectives in elearning research? Do meta narratives and philosophical giants need a place, or are the experts in my field of study enough? What does the macro in a PhD look like? How macro can I go? Higher? Lower? Ground myself in the changing relationships between people, technology and knowledge? The commodification of education? The future of the university?  Or is the rationale for participatory action research enough?

elearning research is a young discipline; not yet fully matured. Researchers have applied an eclectic mix of positivist and constructivist philosophies to underpin a range of learning theories. This should be liberating. It should instil confidence to know there is freedom to rethink and reframe what has gone before. I don’t know why I’m finding it so difficult.  I’m Libran though.  Good at balancing multiple sides of different stories. Identifying strengths and weakness. I sit well on fences. On either side of multiple possibilities. I’m more postmodern than Marxist but even this doesn’t help – the social impact of the internet reflects powerful capitalist roots and most literature on the VLE refers to the commodification of knowledge

This has been going on for long enough. I need to get brave, be decisive, ground myself in a theoretical approach which works on all levels. It’s not easy.  Does the theory relate to the educational process or should it frame the wider society in which the pedagogy is located? Do I select a theory because it fits or because the words dance on the page shouting me! me! me! How do I know the best direction to take?

This is the problem with freedom.

Every time I turn a corner it’s like a new beginning – but not in a good way – more oh **** another focus shift needed. I guess each move is a step closer but appreciating it will take the benefit of hindsight. At the moment my sight is limited, the future hidden and the progress I think I’ve made is never enough. I have pilot participants ready to talk to me but it seems I’m not ready for them.

I can’t position myself epistemologically or ontologically, never mind axiologically – which is possibly the key of the three. When it comes to technology for learning my criticality is driven by my values. It seems these run in ever increasing circles of contrariness to the majority view of pushing the frontiers. I believe we need to look the other way – compare where we are to where we’ve come from. The distance may be less than received wisdom would have us believe. I think closer attention to resistance is called for. A realistic approach looking to the past and the present.  Technology has not transformed teaching in higher education. It might enhance on-campus delivery – it can improve part-time and distance learning – but it cannot transform. Not without attention to the time it takes to produce tasks and facilitate activities or surface the ways it excludes as much as widens participation.

Back the phd. I don’t know how to get theoretical enough. I don’t know how to align myself. I support approaches which offer multiple realities, identities and positions. Grand narratives which scoop everyone into a single overarching structure are less attractive. Pluralities appeal. I met postmodernism in 1999 and I liked it. Within the messiness of postmodern ideas, structures can be identified; hidden agendas and power mechanisms. I can adopt a critical approach in order to uncover these; to show the social underpinning of technology, education and knowledge in a digital age. But I can’t link this with the deeper philosophical language of doctoral research. I can’t move forward from where I’ve been stuck for months. I can’t talk theory.

There are two sides to every story, sometimes three, four or more. Experience influences interpretation and a university should contain oppositional views. Negotiation is the name of the game and there is nothing like educational technology to polarise views.  As the new academic year brings discussions around implementing a digital education strategy, I feel a growing sense of unease.  The VLE is mostly a repository of attachments to module guides, lecture notes and powerpoint presentations; it has become an information conduit not a communication facilitator.

Adoption remains patchy. Early promises of transformation have not been fulfilled. Rather than blue sky thinking around what might be possible maybe we should begin with what we know. Using technology can take more time than it saves, it’s likely to break down, disconnect, not be there when needed, involve steep learning curves, operate through an ever diminishing set of access criteria and is ultimately a poor substitute for human face to face interaction.

I continue to support  teaching and learning online. I believe it enhances distant and blended learning and 24/7 mobile access to relevant content and procedures can only be an advantage to busy people living busy lives.  So why the distance between the users and non users, the early and late adopters? Rather than prioritise innovation, should we pay attention to resistance? Not everyone is comfortable interacting with a machine. One reason is time. Promises of efficiency are diluted by the reality. Managing teaching and learning online requires significant amounts of time to adapt content, facilitate collaboration and group work, moderate communication, and respond to students on individual basis by text or video.  Technology is not always efficient. It breaks down. It confuses. Why cant I find anything on the portal?

In a recent editorial for Learning, Media and Technology, Neil Selwyn* asks how technologies which arrived on promises of a ‘freer and fairer education’ have had the opposite effect. What happened to ‘…pre-millennial expectations of the cyber-campus and seamlessly ‘blended’ learning?’  Where are instances of digital technology which are ‘…genuinely enabling and empowering for those that use them?’  Promises of transformation go on; mobile learning – flipped classrooms – more open educational resources and courses. The voice of the academics are seldom heard. Digital divides by their nature silence those who are late adopters or lag behind.

Unless we listen to staff who are teaching and supporting learning – rather than being driven by interests outside of the lecture theatre/seminar room – we’re not going to achieve bottom up sustainable change.  I still believe in the affordances of virtual learning environments to widen participation and offer genuinely authentic learning experiences. I still believe ICT can disrupt and democratise – but the essential workloads need to be acknowledged and shared. I agree with Selwyn who suggests digital technology for university educators should be developed by the same university educators. Greater resources for courses and those who teach on them has to be worth revisiting as digital futures for teaching and learning are planned.

* Selwyn, N., 2013, Digital technologies in universities: Problems posing as solutions?, Learning, Media and Technology [P], vol 38, issue 1, Routledge, Abingdon Oxon United Kingdom, pp. 1-3

As Blackboard faces upgrading and the procurement process grinds on, Getting Started offers its annual overview of the ways the VLE is used across the university. On a scale from good, less good to not at all. Getting Started has always had differential levels of participation.  I believe the disparity has less to do with attitudes to transition and is more a reflection of the way Blackboard is used across individual practice. As a T&L Coordinator supporting the use of technology, the gaps suggest I’m not doing a very good job. My current downer on all things virtual continues.  Students like their VLE but workshops and surveys suggest differential use between modules and courses is an increasing cause for concern. The question of minimum standards has been mooted although how this would be mandated or policed is less clear. I get despondent over exclusive practices, but there are bigger issues around initial engagement in the first place. Feenberg * may be right. The technology has failed.  As Laurillard ** says we are on the brink of transformation – but have been there for some time.

Maybe if we took the technology away?

My MA in Open and Distance Learning with the OU was delivered online. Four  of six modules used a variety of tools and assessment activities. I chose the last two from social science. Resources were delivered in traditional distance  learning style; cardboard boxes full of cds and books. No online element – not even a discussion. Assignments were posted and returned hand marked. This was not long ago. I learned as much about the affordances of technology to enhance learning, and the power of online communities of shared practice to create new knowledge, by their absence as their presence.

Getting Started is a useful snapshot of VLE engagement. I call for inclusive practice but if Blackboard is not being used, or is a holding place for a collection of Word documents, conversation around TechDis Accessibility Essentials or the DDA/Equality Act is doomed. The gap between my conception of virtual learning and the reality of a VLE as a repository for Word and PowerPoint requires rethinking. Discussions around the Digital Education Strategy need to focus on the low end-user and non-user. Pushing up to blue skies will not address resistance.

Is resistance to Blackboard political or personal? Is it indicative of broader attitudes to internet enabled communication and information? You may as well ask if exclusive practice is deliberate or inadvertent? No one intentionally sets out to exclude. There is  innovative and exciting use of Blackboard across the university but they remain in pockets.  The problem with technology is the divide between those advocating use and those who are the users. The digital divide has less to do with access and more the way access is managed and the continual problem of content being presented in single formats based on assumptions the user can access it. I don’t have the answer in the present economic climate. All I know is in their relationship with technology, people will find their own level and stay there. It might not be effective or inclusive – but without increased human resource and ring fenced funding to support change – the current situation of good, less good or not at all is probably about as good as it gets.


* Feenburg, A. (2011) Agency and Citizenship in a Technological Society

** Laurillard, D. (2008) Digital technologies and their role in achieving our ambitions for education

Failure is not an Option!


Diversity is what makes the world go round. Or at least it should. Experiments of conformity must fail. Equality of opportunity is the fairest system; not being squeezed into narrow behaviour ranges or receiving privilege simply because you belong to a dominant group. One of the largest ever examples of discrimination is being created by the shift to digital practices and lifestyles. The design and delivery of online content increasingly privileges a narrow range of access criteria – the MEE Model – based on the assumption all users operate with a mouse, eyes and ears. This fails to reflect the diversity of ways people do use computers and access the internet but it is successfully excluding those who rely on assistive technology or non-standard methods.

Inclusive practice with digital content can directly challenge exclusive behaviours. The Web pioneers campaigned for accessibility “…if we succeed making web accessibility the norm rather than the exception, this will benefit not only the disability community but the entire population.” (Dardailler, 1997*)

I’ve been reflecting on increasingly exclusive web design and contemplating the failure of guidance from the WAI and Equality legislation; asking the question what lies at the root of exclusive digital  practice? I’m coming to the conclusion its more to do with psychology than technology. We look for the quickest option, the easiest route, familiar ways of working. But as the social shift to digital ICT continues, so does the need to raise awareness of what digital exclusion looks like.

The new e-learning package Bribery Act and Anti Money Laundering on the HR Portal elearning page  is an example of how commercial companies  appear to be unaware of the principles of inclusive digital practice.  Here are some examples.

The narration starts with no warning. There are no user controls to stop, pause, restart, move backwards or forwards. The narration is only on a few slides, each time starting unexpectedly. This sequential use of audio can’t be an alternative format so it’s not clear why it’s included.  The audio can be toggled on or off in the Accessibility controls but you need to open the menu to find this. The volume can also be controlled here but the option is mouse operated (no sliding scale – one click for every number between 1 and 100). There is no ‘save settings’ button. The only way out of the Accessibility menu is to close the window. Close equates Exit more than Save.

The standard keyboard command Ctrl and + to increase magnification doesn’t work; it does reveal the zoom icon in the top right which runs up to 500x in digits but makes no difference to appearance. To customise appearance to preference is through line spacing and text size in the Accessibility panel. This was not successful. Images run over text

bribery exp2

Buttons don’t resize.

bribery exp3

Colour contrasts don’t all adapt to my choices as well as text frames not resizing.

bribery exp 4

Text boxes merge.

bribery exp 6

The background colour can be changed but this lost the content on certain slides offering a green screen.

bribery exp 1

There might be a clue on slide 28 which contained images and suggests the background layer may be positioned on top of the graphic layer – only a guess but something somewhere is not right.

bribery exp 7

The keyboard controls appear to be only for moving through the bottom bar buttons; not offering alternative navigation which should be standard practice.

bribery exp 5

There are no alternative ways to navigate through the slides nor click on text which is bold or part of an image and links to additional information

accessibility features accessibility features

Tab and Shift highlight essential structures but moving from slide to slide in this way is slow and laborious. Shift also brings up the Contents menu which Esc doesn’t close – only a mouse click will do.  These keyboard alternatives are unrealistic for navigation. There is no information about how to access the content without a mouse.

The accessibility window has an image of a wheelchair. I wonder why?

accessibility symbol

This image associates accessibility of digital content with disability and disability only with wheelchair users; neither fair nor accurate assumptions and going against the principle of inclusive practice which is achieving improved assess for all. It’s like saying transcripts are only for people with hearing difficulties – which ignores those with no speakers or headphones or who simply prefer text to audio.

There are other design issues which are questionable. External links take you into a new window with no warning and closing the window returns you to the elearning menu page – rather than the last slide.

Where a name is given as a source of further information, the name is hyperlinked to Outlook which assumes the user has Outlook installed; I don’t have Outlook on my home laptop – so without any details such as an email address or phone number there is no way of contacting the person.

The use of transitions to load pictures is reminiscent of death by PowerPoint. Slide 7 has an spelling mistake in the answer window. This suggests not only was the resource not piloted for alternative usage outside the dominant MEE model (Mouse, Eyes and Ears) it also hasn’t been proofed for errors.

spelling error in online learning resource

I’m not responsible for this resource but it’s indicative of how inclusive practice with digital data is a dying art.

I wonder if anyone else caring about equality of digital opportunities is also contemplating failure.

Screech, scratch, scrape – this is the sound of the soap box being dragged out again. For years I’ve been a lonely voice for digitally inclusive practice. Advocating the TechdDis Accessibility Essential series for making electronic documents more readable Supporting the principles of inclusive practice as improving access for all. In the beginning I’d be encouraged by all the ‘I never thought of that’ comments but recently I’ve begun to feel a failure – because nothing’s changed.

Being resilient is what matters. Equality of access to communication and information technologies matters. I’ve tried to adapt. One of the learning outcomes of the new Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age online course


‘Reflect on and demonstrate a critical awareness of inclusive practice on relation to inline teaching and learning resources, communication and collaborative working with and between students.’

Here is an opportunity to give the soapbox centre stage on a validated teacher education programme. My phd is moving towards the inclusive practice aspect of digital literacies and scholarship with the opportunity to develop a participatory action research project on, in and around the subject of digital inclusion.

But on the outside nothing’s changed.

The editorial from the Journal Research in Learning Technology’s special edition on digital inclusion (Vol 20 2012 available free online starts optimistically. It identifies how ‘current digital inclusion research has failed to produce a detailed critique of what constitutes empowering support from educational institutions and their staff’. How the ‘lack of open and reflexive accounts of practice’ is hindering identification and understanding of the ‘essential empowering practices’ which are so necessary for challenging  the prejudice, stereotypes and risk-aversiveness – all of which contributes to digital exclusion. Here is the language of my sessions with staff and students on the values and ethics of a digital society but the ultimately the Journal only points out old problems and suggesting new solutions – calling for a ‘bolder approach’ by policy makers and funding agencies – precisely because so far nothing has changed!

The reason for this blog is the UL HR elearning packages. It got off to a bad start with the image on the Portal page Here is an example about nothing changing. Text over images is never good practice – especially when advertising ‘e-learning!

example of text over an image in a poster


Looking at the Staff Learning and Development Poster page it seems this one slipped through – or looking at the dates on the poster archive page – may be the sign of things to come.

examples of poster design

Could I suggest the use fo text over images quietly slips out again or the new designer visits for some useful guidance on creating accessible posters.

My sense of failure was heightened with the new e-learning package Bribery Act &/and Anti Money Laundering (I hate ampersands!) Faced with the question of taking time to highlight the issues or ignoring them – I decided to take time out to climb on the lonely soapbox and register another solitary protest.

See Contemplating Failure Part Two…

Pragmatist and Proud

July 27, 2013 | PhD  |  Leave a Comment

I’ve been criticised for calling myself a pragmatist. It has connotations of neutrality. It isn’t political enough. Politics is my weakness. I don’t really have any. It’s not I don’t care about social justice or equality of opportunity. It’s just I’ve adopted a practical philosophy. My approach to life is ‘I can’t change the world but I can work to change my little part of it’.

I didn’t think I needed politics to do a phd. I expected to have to think about knowledge, learn the difference between epistemology and ontology. I thought I’d have to locate myself on the educational spectrum but I didn’t expect my lack of political acumen to be such a barrier to progress.

It’s not enough to want to research my own practice using virtual learning environments, to better support others use of education technology. I have to demonstrate I’m against those with vested interests in automating teaching. It’s not enough to be aware of hidden power structures and work to raise awareness in others so they can adapt their practice accordingly. I have to advocate the failure of education technology in the first place.  Which is a bit like telling me the past 25 years of my working life have been misguided and misplaced.

Not everyone has political bones. My political apathy doesn’t come from privilege. My background is economically poor and socially marginalised. I know how capitalism creates inequality, how it privileges those with financial security and disempowers the poor. I’ve seen how capitalist systems replicate disadvantage, how they construct social ghettos of low opportunity and aspiration. I believe higher education offers opportunities to raise awareness of inequality, to understand the construction of power and control, to uncover the replication and reinforcement of inequality, to support social justice. This is as political as I get. But it’s not enough.

My theory is not deep enough. My criticisms not founded, my arguments too weak and my opinion not important.  Without being grounded in theory, I haven’t earned the right to speak. I thought where I was and what I did was enough.  Actions speaking louder than words and so on. Unless it’s for a phd. Where it seems the words matter more than the actions.

I understand the rationale for theory. The need to avoid the risk of applying theory rather than critically engaging with it. I knew a phd was about questioning, about accepting or rejecting theoretical approaches. But I thought my reading and reflection was enough to get started on my data collection. It seems not. I’m still floating. Not grounded enough. All of which makes it feel like I’ve hardly begun. So if I stop now, while I’m closer to the starting point than I realised, it won’t be such a waste will it? I could keep the politics in a box. Stay pragmatist and proud.  Alternatively, I could investigate the possibility of being both pragmatist and political at the same time.


‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.’  This sounds like Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message,1967) but was written McLuhan’s friend, John Culkin, who also said ‘a lot of things have happened in this century and most of them plug into walls.’ (quoted in Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman Charles Weingartner, 1971 p 10)

The plug referred to television. Today we plug into the internet, taking for granted all the multiple channels of mass media which so concerned McLuhan, Culkin and Postman et. al. 40-50 years ago. The process of logging on may be shaping our working  practice but any modification of behaviour can’t be directly attributed to the technology. The development and integration of machines in our daily lives ultimately derives from the external social landscape, one which positions us within the dominant political economy of the time.

Postman and Weingartner called for education to be subversive. Young people should ‘…question, doubt, or challenge any part of the society in which they live, especially those parts which are most vulnerable…schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism.’  Schools should also be capable of instilling in students – a la Hemmingway – a built-in, shockproof crap detector! I guess that’s one way of describing critical pedagogy which sets out to uncover the power structures disguised as ideology and culture.

One of my favourite words is resonance. It describes universal significance but resonance can also be personal; a poem has resonance when it ‘hits home’ and reader ‘hears’ what is being said. The  stab of recognition might not be shared by all. The act of naming is individual. Althusser wrote about appellation and identity; how cultural discourse offers a variety of subject positions which ‘hail’ us; we recognise what fits and adopt.

Education needs the principle of resonance. To learn requires the application of new to existing knowledge in order to integrate and understand. Resonance happens when something makes sense. Resonance can be applied to crap as well as to meaningful synchronicity and validated knowledge. What matters is distinguishing between them and knowing what matters to you as an individual.

All roads lead to my PhD and this is no exception. Where there’s no resonance there’s less interest. Part-time doctoral research is a tough choice and it doesn’t get any easier. I’m having an existential moment. I know what I want to research and how I want to manage the process but I feel the tools are shaping me in directions I don’t want to go – where there’s no resonance.  I’m being positioned in the wrong place. I don’t want to change the world,  just my own tiny little part of it. I’m thinking I might give up. The only sense of direction is backwards.

Stickers on apples are annoying and un-organic. They don’t decompose and sit in landfill sites for ever. As if the perfect shape and wax coated skin was not evidence enough of human interference in a natural process, they have to have a sticker on too!

Why does every apple have a sticker? Once you know it’s obvious – but I didn’t

It’s about the automation of shopping. About user-managed self-service checkouts with only one apple type on the screen. If you have a different apple then key in the user code which is on the label. Simples.

At 6.00 in Asda his morning there were no check-outs operating only the self service ones. How much money does Asda save by automating the shopping process? It still needs the human on hand to sort out issues but one person manages multiple self-service stations. This is the automation of shopping. DIY. Or don’t do it at all.

Is this also the future of the VLE? Choose your course, work through the onscreen instructions, interact where required, pay and walk away with the product.

I’m still reflecting on the issue of power, since the lack of it was commented on in my EA2 (see politics and power) This weekend I revisited ‘All Watched Over by Machines of  Loving Grace’ (Adam Curtis, 2011).  The 3-part documentary examines how power is perceived and distributed. I’m writing about resistance to virtual learning. Both are connected to the 1990’s. Curtis revisits late 20th century dreams of a cybernetic utopia with freedom from social controls and conventions. Dearing’s  1997 landmark report into the future of higher education claimed the internet would transform the university. There is more…

Underneath, I’m interested in the social construction of identity; how society controls gender expectations opposed to how we interpret ourselves and ways of resistance. The commodification of gender expectations is a powerful and invisible social control. I’m drawn to Edward Bernays application of his uncle Sigmund’s psychoanalytic ideas to public relations and marketing. I also like postmodernist ideas on subjectivity, in particular Baudrillard on simulation and social manipulation of  confusion between the Sign and the Real. Power is the thread which pulls this altogether and digital media the channel where power operates most persuasively. In Propaganda, Bernays describes PR as the ‘conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses’. He claims this is an important aspect of democracy and ‘‘Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’

It’s a small step to social controls through corporations and governments. These excursions into power soon encounter Foucault who explored the power and authority of institutions and the state, how it became anonymous and embedded in bureaucracies. For all his ideas have been supported or critiqued, the Foucaultian view of hierarchical surveillance is alive and well and living in Google.

We have become accustomed to digital ways of working, but resist digital pedagogic practice. The lecture and seminar remain the most popular form of transmission and debate. The virtual in learning environment remains largely invisible.

Visions are rarely neutral and with technology they are mostly utopian or dystopian. In 1999 Daniel Nobel wrote Digital Diploma Mills attacking the distribution of digitized course material online, seeing this as a regressive trend towards mass production and standardization in the favour of commercial interests. In 2005 the HEFCE first elearning strategy promoted technology enhanced learning as leading to transformation through radical and positive change. In 2011, Feenburg (author of Questioning Technology, 2001)claimed the promise of virtual learning in the 1990s has come to nothing – and ‘the automation of learning has failed’ 

The embedding of the university VLE affects everyone who works or studies there but it is not universally loved; more tolerated or even hated. It’s possible the sector is still in a state of transition. Socrates complained the written word would damage education if people no longer needed to meet up and discuss philosophical ideas. After Gutenberg, there was concern the book would harm the educational imperative. Resistance to teaching and learning online may be an extension of academic culture shock. Or resistance may run deeper, indicative of caution from critical thinkers and reflective practitioners.

The joy of a digital education strategy is the potential to enhance teaching and learning. The recognition we are under-resourced to support digital engagement is welcome. The fear is the starting place. Blue sky thinking is visionary. Before looking to something out of reach, some brown ground work is needed first.

When the word transformative is applied to technology I get nervous. In the beginning, twenty years ago, transformative was common. HEFCE’s first elearning strategy (2005) promoted the ‘transformative potential of technology’, following government ambitions for the internet to transform society – no less. In 2009  HEFCE published a revised strategy. Transformative is still in there but the word enhancing dominates. Enhance is a better ambition. The TQEF of those times was aptly named – Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund. The university’s Best Practice Office, renamed  Teaching and Learning Development Office, was funded through the TQEF and its Teacher Fellow Scheme a great example of how education development funds support innovative digital practices in teaching and learning, led by teachers not technologists, who sought to enhance not transform.

HEFCE have stuck to their 2009 definitions of ‘transform’ and ‘enhance’ in their triple ambitions for technology enhanced learning. They see TEL leading to:

  • efficiency (existing processes carried out in a more cost-effective, time-effective, sustainable or scalable manner)
  • enhancement (improving existing processes and the outcomes)
  • transformation (radical, positive change in existing processes or introducing new processes).

I think we need to be positioned on the middle ground of enhancement where technology is an additional pedagogic layer – not a replacement. Virtual learning cannot automate the higher education experience.  Blue sky thinking is not the way forward at the present time. We need to ground strategic thinking in what we have and what we know.

I’ve always worked where nervousness and excitement combine. Fear of technology is a serious condition. We should take more notice of it. There’s much to learn from resistance. Nervousness has many forms; you might not even see it’s there. Quite often, the realisation of how technology can support/enhance existing practice pushes the nervousness away. But like an addiction, it always back. In particular it strikes when you’re alone in front of the computer and something doesn’t work as you expected or you’ve forgotten what to do next. This is the point the technology gets put to aside and traditional methods of working re-emerge. Most people prefer the comfort of the familiar and the secure. The danger/thrill seekers are the minority. Digital practices are much less about the hardware/software/workshops – they are human and individual – and as such there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

A digital education strategy has to recognise the person behind the machine, the pedagogic differences between subject disciplines, the diversity of ways people use computers and access the internet and above all the nature of  help. This is brown ground stuff. It’s the bottom line. The starting point. Unless we have empathy for resistance, digital divides can’t be seen. Unless we acknowledge the work to be done in encouraging, supporting and resourcing the late adopters, digital education will always be unequal and exclusive.

There are so many places to be online and I want only one. Ideally this blog is my one stop shop. A snapshot of who I am and what I do. So this needs to include photographs. But my relationship with WordPress and images has always been fractious.  The NextGEN Gallery tool did what I wanted. Then something broke and instead of fixing it a new media tool was added.  Now I have to start from scratch when hundreds of pictures of projects and colleagues are already uploaded through NextGEN. The Media tool contains the promise of linking to NextGEN but when I try nothing happens.

MEdia tool with link to NextGEN gallery


I create a new Gallery as a slideshow but on the post page I get the message this requires JavaScript – ok, but what next?  Help isn’t helpful if it doesn’t include the information you need to solve the problem.

error message saying the slideshow function needs javascript

I used to like the Social Homes Widget link to my Flickr Photostream. Then Flickr changed format and my account settings split into old and new. Both with the same url. I can move between them in Flickr but the widget only showed old images when I wanted new ones. I added a NextGen Widget to the side bar instead. It gives me the thumbnails I want but they open onto a blank page. I wonder why the tool is still there when it doesn’t work. A Jet Pack image widget only gives a broken link although everything looks like it’s filled in correctly.  Maybe it only takes certain URLs and not others.

Jetpack image widget broken link

This is about digital literacies. I could do better but I do try and I’m not digitally illiterate.  WordPress frustrates me; it always has done. It offers multiple ways to work with images but none of them do what I want. Linking the different elements of your life online should be easier than this. Plus it takes time. There is never enough time and when you can’t achieve your aims it feels time is wasted. I never know if it’s me or the technology but either way the result is too often not doing things because you can’t make them work.

I’ve stuck with this for several reasons. The assessment for the short course Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age is an eportfolio and there are a few other projects across the university looking at WordPress as an eportfolio tool. Text only blog posts are boring. Images can ‘educate, inform and entertain’. They are essential components of any eportfolio environment and I’m interested in how we support eportfolio construction at Lincoln. WordPress is ok. I like it a lot but when it comes to usability I think it could be better. Plus it’s Monday morning – never the best part of the week – and sometimes it’s cathartic to start the week with a good grumble!

image of a strawberry shaped like a butterfly

My Ethics approval (EA2) was resubmitted and conditionally passed with comments to be addressed. One was about the issue of power. There was not enough of it.

image of text from EA2 comments saying there is not enough discussion of power!

Power is not often on my mind. I know my place. I don’t manage – I scaffold. I liked participatory action research (PAR) as a methodology because it enables collaboration. PAR will test my theories around online learning; namely the student knows themselves best. When it comes to finding ways to support staff engagement with technology for education, the students will be teaching me. I have a toolkit of online learning activities but without participation they won’t get used and learning will be limited. Virtual learning is a partnership. Without communication and collaboration it simply won’t work. Online tutors need to be skilled in creating opportunities for learning at a distance when all the evidence suggests successful teaching is fundamentally a social activity. It’s a challenge and this doctoral research will aid the development of teacher education at Lincoln. So what did I need to say about power?

I’ve had to reflect on this. The Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) course is heavy on reflection. It’s a teaching tool in itself. Revisiting Freire, I was struck again by the fundamental simplicity of critical pedagogy. The ancient greeks had it sussed. From Socrate’s the unexamined life is not worth living to the words above the Delphi Oracle ‘know thyself’ – politics is and always has been ultimately personal. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we teach? Is it to replicate and reinforce or to challenge and change?

The move towards incrasing blended and fully online courses has the potential to widen participation but also reduce the quality of the experience. Retention figures evidence the difficulty of engaging learners online. Who talks about MOOCs these days? It took less than a year for the bubble to burst.  There are important lessons to learn from MOOCing. Back to power.

I have a problem with the idea I might in some way be disempowering. I’d interpreted PAR as willingness to give power away – after all, it’s inviting critique of my practice. Then I thought about TELEDA’s resources. As well as critical evaluation of the philosophy and practice of open education,  I’m insisting on a critical awareness of digital exclusion. TELEDA is my platform for drawing attention to alternative ways of being and raising awareness of excluded voices.

In an increasingly digital society, to be shut out from the digital platforms of the public sphere is to be marginalised and excluded. Higher education has a responsibility to  seek out and challenge exclusion rather than replicate and reinforce exclusive attitudes and behaviours. The subject of digital access is challenging and uncomfortable. I’m asking participants to examine their own practice for barriers, knowing they will find them and perceive removing them as additional, often unnecessary, work. Who provides audio and video content in alternative textual formats? No where near enough!

I believe inclusion is an essential component of effective digital scholarship and integral to teaching and learning in a digital age. If higher education doesn’t address the causes and mending of digital divides it is failing society. TELEDA is my way of making a difference. I can’t change the world but I can change my part of it.

I can see myself and my PhD may be more political than I realised.

Testing Xerte 2 Take 2 

A phd is like a dog – not just for Christmas – it’s for life. It needs feeding, watering and taking out at least twice a day. The advantage is I don’t have to scoop the poop and there’s no dog hairs on my settee. The disadvantage is it’s sneaking in and taking over – although I don’t mind really. Like dogs have a way of getting through to you, me and my phd are starting to get on. The relationship’s improving; it could be getting serious and it might last for some time.

Over on my PhD page there’s the public side of my PhD journal. It tracks my regular meetings with supervisor Mike Neary; references my reading and contains reflections on the process of engaging with doctoral research. The entries aren’t blog posts but they do sometimes raise issues which are bloggable. At the moment I’m considering my position. Feet on coffee table, laptop on knee is not enough. I have to know where I’m coming from. In phd-ology language this is my ontology and epistemology. In my head it’s contextualization. How much of myself do I put into doctorate?

The answer is more than I anticipated.

I’ve always lived my life in layers. I compartmentalize. Have multiple identities.  What’s exciting is the way the phd process is creating linkages between these layers, in particular how the theme of authorship and text keeps reappearing. I need some time out to explore this.

So excuse me please, I have to walk the dog. I may be some time.

Mike Neary Student as Producer Conference

Conferences highlight the value of shared time and place. Mike Neary opened Day Two of the Student as Producer Conference. Disrupting traditional keynote presentation style, sitting behind a table with a hand written notebook, Mike talked about the layers of Student as Producer.  It’s been three years. In that time, the eloquence of Student as Producer has become refined. There is strength in layers and Student as Producer has multiple levels of engagement. It’s also startlingly simple. Involve students in their education. Invite academics to rethink their teaching. Discover how the relationship between teaching and research can be made less dysfunctional.

The thinking needs to be critical. Critical as political, as well as personal. Political thinking takes time. I’m not sure I’m political enough. Engaging with change isn’t easy. Not because changing practice is difficult – it’s the other,  often invisible, requirements.  Time. Motivation. Confidence. Change is resource heavy. We resist less through dissensus over new practice principles, but the weight of workloads, bureaucracy, administration. We rarely live in isolation and our others might not acknowledge the social and institutional crisis or ways to protect, defend and reinvent the idea of the university as a radical political project.

I’m a pragmatist. I want to make a difference – who wouldn’t – but I’ve stopped trying to change the world. These days I focus on my little part of it, using education to raise awareness of digital divides and social necessity for digitally inclusive practice. I’m not a revolutionary Marxist, but the social impact of the internet drives me to challenge digital discrimination as a road to social justice.

Digital scholarship is a strand of Student as Producer. The University is developing a Digital Education Strategy.  Mike talked about the Reinvention Centre at Warwick; its absence of chairs and tables designed to destabilize expectations of an educational environment. There was no power point. Mike says the teacher is the point of power. Today, an internet connection is the point of power. Re-imagining scholarship for 21st century also requires attention to the digital aspects of education, in particular the parameters of access, exclusion and use. Maybe we’re not talking about this aspect of Student as Producer as much as we could.

With hindsight I should have done a workshop. There were more questions than time to ask them. I halved the session; planning 15 minutes to raise issues and 15 minutes to talk about them. On reflection I should have done a pecha-kucha; a mini presentations of 20 PowerPoint Slides with 20 seconds each to talk about them (6.40 minutes in total). A PK would probably work with Prezi. Once, back in 2009, I saw Prezi used well – but never since. Prezi is a classic example of the technology leading practice. It has potential but too often the effect is sea sickness – not what you want to be remembered for.

My presentation suggested Boyer’s strands of scholarship; Discovery, Application, Teaching and Integration now required a layer of digital literacies – only then can we talk about digital scholarship – one of the strands of Student as Producer.  I showed how Embedding OER Practice had created the time and space to talk digital, share digital practice, create enthusiasm for creative commons, for the reuse and repurposing of content, and now the project is over, how I’m trying to preserve some of the energy and enthusiasm for digital ways of working with TELEDA – the new Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age short course 30 M Level CATS – delivered and assessed entirely online.

Maybe my ending should have been my beginning (apologies TS Eliot); the challenge of student use of technology, in particular social media and mobile devices in seminars and lectures. I always try to fit too much in – but there is too much to talk about.

students using mobiles to photograph a presentation rather than taking notes      social media icons

Student as Producer from University of Lincoln on Vimeo.

It’s been three years since the start of Student as Producer; now the organizing principle of the University of Lincoln. The Student as Producer Conference (26/27 June 2013) marks the end of the funded phase of Student as Producer. Opening the conference, Mike Neary, Dean of Teaching and Learning, described the layers of Student as Producer philosophy and practice.

The classroom layer where Student as Producer has influenced the curriculum and its delivery, changing the ways new knowledge is created.

The institution layer where Student as Producer challenges and critiques the purposes of the institution in order to develop and progress an alternative vision of what a university should be.

The broader layer where Student as Producer is a political movement,  protecting and defending the university as for the public good; Student as Producer is an act of resistance to students as consumers and the pedagogy of debt.

As Day Two of the conference begins it can be followed on Twitter #saspconf or via the live conference blog

To say I’m disappointed with Xertes 2 is an understatement :-( It used to be up-front accessible – you could change the text size, colour, background etc to suit your own requirements.Xertes original accessibility toolbar

Xertes 2 has lost this. I’ve been told this is now html5 rather than Flash but the Tooltip function on the images isn’t working – not is the magnifier – at least, not in Chrome and I haven’t seen any browser preference specified.   whether I select Default, Full Screen, or Fit Window, the size remains 800 x 600 – unless I alter the Embed Code (see second example).  I may need to experiment more with sizing when creating content –  I worry this is another example of the invisibility of digital divides and prevalence of the tripartite MEE Model of computer access; Mouse, Eyes, Ears. Accessibility features need to be visible and at first sight this looks like a loss rather than gain.

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) Learning Block Four covered online communication and collaboration. It was clear from the  discussions the issue of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour is contestable. Personally, I incline towards old fashioned strictness! The internet increasingly supports environments where almost anything goes but this needn’t be the case for virtual learning environments. With my tutor head on – I’d suggest discussion forums are not chat rooms. Unless they’ve been set up for social purposes, they’re forums for discussing issues around teaching, learning and research and guidelines should be in place to maintain that focus.

It’s never too early to encourage students (and staff) to think about appropriate online identity and  boundaries between the personal/private and public/professional ways we present ourselves online including the language used. Students in particular need support in developing digital graduate attributes and awareness of the permanence of digital footprints. Establishing a code of conduct at the outset of any online discussion is good practice. It reminds participants of the purpose of the forum and can clearly state how any explicit or implicit personal criticism is unacceptable. With this in place, and a reminder to adhere to the code with each new topic, the ground rules are set and mark the point where intervention is required. How to manage that intervention is also contentious with different people having different ideas.  There’s no escaping the fact managing online communication and collaboration is a challenge. It is also time consuming. Yet when it works well, online discussion can offer powerful learning experiences through communities of practice where links between participants can remain active long after the course itself has ended.

There’s a new thread running through my PhD reading and reflection; how little has changed with ‘e-learning’. In the digital education world, innovators and technologists have raced ahead – buoyed with project funding – reinventing multiple wheels and embracing the new affordances of social media, demonstrating their connectivism from tweeting cliques – while many more staff remain excluded from the mysteries of social media and virtuality, following the traditional lecture/seminar models and wishing learning technology would quietly leave the building. I find myself somewhere between the two. I’ve been reading Feenburg (see the PhD page) In the ninth of his ten paradoxes of technology, the co-construction of technology and society and resulting feedback loops are demonstrated through Esher’s print ‘Drawing Hands’. Like a Mobious Strip, or the chicken and the egg question, the print confuses our expectations of order. It reminds me of the VLE – the only way to learn it is to use it but how can we use it without supporting the learning?

Escher print Drawing Hands

When VLE’s were first embedded into university systems there were expectations of adoption and use e.g.HEFEC’s Technology Enhanced Learning Strategy full of the rhetoric of transformation. Over on the Phd page I’ve quoted Feenburg who said in 2011 ‘the promise of virtual learning in the 1990s has come to nothing and elearning within the university has failed’. I’d suggest it hasn’t failed; more not worked out as well as it could have done. I’m a learning technologist with a remit to support virtual pedagogy. Failure is not an option. I still believe in the affordances of technology – access beyond the barriers of time and distance – and the potential power of online communication and collaboration to create communities of shared practice where learning takes off and runs. The best way forward is working directly with teachers and learning developers on how best to enable their own digital scholarship and literacies. There’s no secret to effective online learning. We know what works. Give staff time, space and incentivisation to adopt digital ways of working alongside a reliable knowledgeable support system – and they will – the TELEDA course shows enthusiasm and interest is there. What’s missing is the time, space and incentivisation – and a support system robust enough to reach across the schools and departments. The reason the OU do it so well is the resource they put into it. The reasons other institutions do it less well is their DIY approach to technology; elearning hasn’t failed, it just needs a different strategic approach to innovation.

Reading the literature around technology and society is to visit some gloomy, pessimistic viewpoints. I agree technology is devisive. Access to technological resources can be seen to replicate wider social structures of disadvantage and marginalisation. But I need to be optimistic.  I don’t see technology for education as necessarily essentialist – or as Douglas Kellner says in his response to Feenburg’s book Questioning Technology –‘…having a primary dimension which is functional…instrumental, decontextualizing, reductive, autonomising and determinist.’  P161-2. Those who interpret it this way miss the creative potential of the user.  I remain positive. Given the time, space and incentivisation to integrate and contextualise the use of technology, it can be enriching rather than dominating and reductive.

This is my motivation for adopting an action research methodology for my research  one which invites staff to participate in a process which seeks to improve relationships with an institutional VLE. I believe without investment into the staff who use it, who are best placed to say how they could use it more effectively, there can be no freedom from the loop of resistance. Without participatory research into the staff experience, resistance to the VLE will continue, it will be negatively critiqued, and used on a ‘needs-must-if-at-all’ basis. I do believe VLEs can be used effectively to enhance teaching and learning for on campus students and provide a valid alternative for those learning in isolation at a distance. I also believe staff are excited by the potential of new digital media but lack the opportunities to develop the new ways of thinking and managing their practice. The pilot run of Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age is already suggesting this. The challenge now is to investigate how best to manage this process before the next academic year.


Feenberg, A. (2010). Ten paradoxes of technology. Techné, 14(1): 3-15.

Feenburg, A. (2011) Agency and Citizenship in a Technological Society

Kellner, D. (2001) Feenberg’s Questioning Technology in Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 18(1): 155-162, 2001.

We all have different stress warning signs. The one which works for me is not blogging. The realisation I’ve missed not one, not two but three weeks – and scarcely noticed – is a signal my work-load needs attention.

Writing is my favourite form of expression, so long as it’s digital. Give me a laptop with a word processor and I’m happy – most of the time. Having a ‘To Do’ list which is always on the increase, regardless of how much gets done and crossed off – is not so good.

Workload is a contentious topic. It’s excessive for everyone. The idea of 9-5 with work-free evenings and weekends is no longer an option. The challenge is to manage the work/life balance and normally I do it well; using weekends to catch up with friends with a walk on the beach, with family over a dvd and bacon buttie – plus life on my allotment – this gives me everything I need – so what’s gone wrong?

Is it – dare I say – the phd? I suspect this has tipped the balance yet I know I’m incredibly lucky. My doctoral research is around my primary work interest – digital education – and my reading has been a fantastic opportunity to revisit old studies on the social impact of technology, in particular through culture. It’s all good but I’ve reached the point where what needs to be done is greater than the time I have to do it in – and I feel guilty writing this blog post when there are so many other tasks I should be getting on with instead.

It takes a brave person to admit to work overload. So often it’s seen as a reflection on poor time-management or self-organization.  I’m not even sure this blog post is a good idea – but I realise if I’m not blogging then I’m not reflecting,  and if I’m not taking time to apply some critical thought to my practice, then I’m no longer being effective, and that’s no good to anyone :-(

It can be time consuming to search through the mass of content labelled as OER. Where quality resources exist, they are most likely to be professionally produced and supported, for example through the OU’s Open Learn. This raises the issue of the extent to which academic and professional service staff can be expected to be content creators.

Absence of appropriate subject level OER this led to opposing approaches – some felt it was an opportunity to release content as OER while others felt this might detract from interest in taking the course. ‘Open Educational Resources: An Introduction for Managers and Policymakers’ from the Higher Education Academy includes the VC at Lincoln saying “The most compelling argument for the release of OER is the Marketing opportunities that it provides. The more you release, the more people know about you.” The OU use this approach in Open Learn; offering ‘tasters’ from full courses which have to be paid for, yet as this activity shows, this approach to OER is not universally accepted and OER as undermining the market base should be taken seriously.

Experience with MOOC was mixed. Most found useful content either for work or interest – but expressed concerns about design and delivery. The media hyped ‘threat’ to the future of higher education was not generally supported by observations. MOOC can be useful for training purposes and introducing subjects like maths where there are a higher amount of ‘fixed’ answers but their application to ‘flexible’ subjects like philosophy and the humanities requires different approaches. There is still much development work to be done to show how MOOC can offer viable ‘free’ alternatives to the university experience and certification of learning. However, this is not to say they should be ignored.

The  open education movement takes familiarity with online environments for granted.  As society moves ever closer to ‘digital by default’ policy and practice, the voice of the digitally marginalised is becoming invisible. When the majority of platforms in the public sphere are digital, those without the means of participation are effectively silenced. Web designers and developers are building increasingly inaccessible learning environments depending on a MEE Model of computer access which assumes all users have a Mouse for navigation, Eyes to see the screen and Ears listen to content. This does not reflect the diversity of ways in which people operate online but as a result of the MEE Model, provision of content (especially multimedia) in alternative formats and with appropriate user controls is not always evident. The OU resources generally follow accessibility guidelines, although broken links to essential transcripts are evident. Outside the OU, a major problem with repository content is the lack of evidence of inclusive practice or minimum quality standards. In many cases, ‘exclusion’ is not deliberate but results from the current low profile of digitally accessible practices.

The recent media MOOC hype has not only overshadowed OER but in some cases MOOC platforms are blurring the boundaries between them.  There are tensions around the quality and quantity of OER and at the present time, MOOCs are producing more questions than answers in particular around issues of quality, inclusion, accreditation and cost. Opening up access to online education aligns with the philosophy and practice of early internet pioneers such as Tim Berners Lee ( but with freedom comes responsibility and the higher education sector has a valuable role to play in shaping the future of open practices.

Milestone marker

My first GS5 progress report represents another PhD milestone. This doctoral research looks at embedding digital scholarship into teacher education programmes. The rationale is the increase in virtual learning environments across the sector in the past decade and the drive towards flexible work-based modes of online learning within higher education at the present time.  Academic and professional service staff have historically been unsupported in developing digital ways of working yet attention to digital scholarship, and having individual confidence and competence with digital literacies, is essential if virtual environments are to support quality teaching and learning experiences.

The PhD page of this blog contains my reflective journal since changing supervisors earlier this year. I have found the process of blogging an essential motivator and opportunity to record my background reading. On the advice of my supervisor, this literature has broadened to include the social impact of technology over the past century, not only from an academic perspective but also how technology has been represented within art, fiction and film. I have found this process useful not only in contextualizing the development of the internet and world wide web but also in understanding human responses to technology, in particular the roots of resistance in areas where technology is challenging traditional practices such as education.

I am currently looking at the literature on digital scholarship in order to better locate its role within the university and identify the effect it has on teaching and learning. My methodology has shifted from a qualitative approach through open ended questionnaires and interviews with staff to an action research approach. This will use my tutoring practice on my 30 credit M Level CATS module, Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA-PG) which is delivered and assessed entirely online. The module aims to support digital scholarship and literacies through giving staff the experience of being an online student exploring the different element of virtual education including pedagogical approaches to learning online, resources, communication, collaboration, assessment and feedback. The module is currently being piloted with a group of critical friends with plans to recruit from internal staff twice a year from September 2013.

The nature of working in digital environments involves ongoing CPD in order to keep up to date with changes in internet based tools and media. This module is offered as part of the university’s portfolio of teacher education programmes and will need to be inherently organic with the capacity for adapting to external digital changes as well as student/tutor evaluations. Bryman (1989) says change is seen as a useful way of learning how something works and as TELEDA has multiple theoretical and practical levels, it has the potential to be a useful subject for an action research methodology. Denscombe describes Action Research as being essentially involved with practical issues and arising from activity in the ‘real’ world (Denscombe: 125) so action researchers focus on ‘aspects of their practice as they engage in that practice’ (Denscombe: 128) Integral to the module is a stress on critical reflection and the application of the course principles to individual practice. Both tutors and participants are encouraged to adopt and share professional self-development through critical self-analysis (Schon 1982) and as tutor plus action researcher I would be well placed to enhance the reflective process through research techniques. I believe this situates action research as a methodology particularly well suited for my practice-based doctoral research. I will continue to develop this as a viable methodology during the rest of this academic year, looking at how best to involve course students/staff in the action/reflection cycle, evaluating the influences of action, and disseminating and sustaining ideas and actions in the light of these evaluations.

Bryman, A. (4th edition 2012) Social Research Methods OUP Oxford.

Denscombe, M. (4th edition 2012) The Good Research Guide: For Small-scale Social research projects. Open University Press.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, How Professionals Think In Action, Basic Books.

Milestone image from 

Last year I suggested doing a MOOC for Christmas. Participation seemed a good way to experience online learning design  but after my first week with OLDsMOOC, I realise how passive my previous MOOCs have been. The challenge of OLDsMOOC is it demands action and integration. OLDsMOOC is too big for lurking. You need the sense of a group with a shared purpose. Otherwise it’s like being in a giant city for the first time; full of iconic landmarks and exciting to be there – but even better with map of the public transport systems and some familiar faces to share it with.

DIY Multimedia at!forum/olds-mooc-diy-multimedia  is taking shape and it’s exciting to be sharing everyone’s contributions in this way. Useful commonalities between OLD and the use of multimedia in teaching and learning are emerging. Both areas sit outside subject specialism. Multimedia is part of being digitally literate.  The recognition that digital literacies would benefit from sector wide funding under the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme was welcome. However, funds tend to go to teams already embedded in digital ways of working with the risk of assumptions made by innovators and early adopters about individual confidence and competence with working in online environments. This also applies to OLD. Experts in face-to-face design and delivery can be left to work out OLD for themselves; this can result in a mass of content posted online with little variety or interaction. A common complaint is ‘I set up a discussion forum but nobody used it!’ Experience of an online course, or MOOC, in particular the loneliness of the long distance learner, or overload of information, is invaluable. OLDsMOOC is experiential learning at its best.

The strange becomes familiar: Facebook has arrived on OLDsMOOC!

Facebook and OLDsMOOC

Facebook has arrived! After the strangeness of Cloudworks and initiation into Google Groups, the OLDs Facebook site offers a welcome familiar face. Facebook for me has become a useful mechanism for keeping up to date with community groups and organisations as well as family and friends. To see OLDsMOOC appear here was almost a relief; at last, an environment I can integrate into my daily online routine.  The link between familiar online environments and retention might be worth further investigatinon.

The OLDs calendar of w/b on Thursdays is another anomaly I’m finding difficult to adjust to. I can’t shift from feeling Mondays is the start of the week. Does OLD work best when operating on a traditional time scale? Another question to reflect on for future practice.


I’ve blogged about the ‘end of week one’ and earned a badge (:-)) but there is no end. Convergence is integral to this MOOC experience where boundaries are blurred and massiveness makes it impossible to follow everything. I’m having to get used to the idea I might be missing something interesting and relevant simply because I can’t get through the emails or browse all the clouds. It’s a lesson in setting and managing priorities;  a useful reminder of the vastness of the internet in particular for people new to working online. I’ve MOOC’ed before but only, I now realise, as a passive participant, absorbing the content without getting into conversations. This is different; it’s overwhelming, frustrating and exciting! I can see the potential for collaborative group work, establishing communities of shared practice and real value in terms of feeding the experience into my practice supporting online learning – but eight weeks may be too long. OLDSMOOC is getting dominant. It’s overtaking my other work and non-work time. I’m having to turn off the clouds, the groups and even my email so I can focus on non-MOOC subjects. Then I realise even now, with it all turned off, I’m blogging about it!

oldsmooc badge week 1

It’s been a while since I was last awarded a badge :-)


At the end of week 1 I’ve tried to follow the activities It hasn’t been easy to find a way through the different technologies. This in itself has been an interesting experience. It’s good to step outside your comfort zone and one way to engage with new ways of working is to have a definite task in mind. My proposal is the development of DIY approach to Multimedia. This aligns with an on going project, so OLD with audio and video is relevant to me. My work role is to find ways to support people to use technology for education and I worry that here on OLDsMOOC  I’ve been unable to translate the initial interest in my proposal into a working team. Cloudworks seems unnecessarily complex with too many ways of doing things resulting in information being scattered with no obvious mechanism for pulling it all together and establishing a single communication channel. I’ve tried to understand Cloudworks. My cloud profile and links to my clouds and cloudscape is here 

I set up an alternative area for DIY Multimedia on Google Groups, this is here!forum/olds-mooc-diy-multimedia 

Open education is part of my role at Lincoln. Having just completed a 12 month JISC/HEA OER Change Academy programme, I’d suggest engagement with the philosophy and practice of OER comes before MOOCS.  With OER you can have a more gentle and less public introduction but OER practice requires a sophisticated use of the internet and attention to specific digital literacies and MOOCs even more so. A key issue for me after this first week of OLDsMOOC is how many people may have tried and been defeated by the barrier of the technology. Rather than celebrating the affordances of online learning, this MOOC may have confirmed individual techno-fears and widened existing digital divides rather than helped bridge them. The spectrum of engagement with digital practices is wide. Many late adopters on the far side benefit from scaffolded approaches to increasing their digital confidence. Too often the technology is presented and users left to get on with it; reminiscent of early days of the VLE when attention was paid to the embedding of the technology and systems rather than the changes in practice necessary to shift from face to face to digital ways of working. OLDsMOOC has been a bit like these.

This is my OLDsMOOC story so far. I’ve been trying out MOOCs for some time and blogging about it here where there are also OLDsMOOC musings and reflections. I’m looking forward to Week2 and to working with colleagues who have found there way onto the DIY Multimedia Google Group. Those who made initial contact and are still out there – I hope our paths cross again in one way or another.

Having posted this on yet another cloud and added it to the Refelction Cloudscape, I’ve applied for my first ever MOOC badge – and am waiting for approval…

Working with teams of staff developing OER for the past year I find engagement with openess demands a sophisticated understanding of the internet so is useful for developing digital literacies, but also making work freely available under a creative commons licence encourages the revisiting of learning design principles and practices. The smaller scale of OER reduces the massiveness of the MOOC so can be a useful starting point with online design..


Working with teams of staff developing OER for the past year I find engagement with openess demands a sophisticated understanding of the internet so is useful for developing digital literacies, but also making work freely available under a creative commons licence encourages the revisiting of learning design principles and practices. The smaller scale of OER reduces the massiveness of the MOOC so can be a useful starting point with online design..
Learning design with multimedia must include attention to accessibility and inclusion. Making sure content is provided in alternative formats is something to be considered at the beginning of the process, e.g. transcripts, captions, subtitles etc, and not bolted on as an after thought at the end (see TechDis for advice and guidance). This process needs to be meaningful otherwise the result becomes tokenistic. See for an example of careless attention to these things!
When designing online learning environments  build in time for induction, finding your way around and making sure everyone in familiar with the channels of communication. This can help people disappearing before the fun begins :-)
Oh and the ethics of using multimedia – permissions, consent, copyright, health and safety etc…. more on this to follow

Dire captions on NSS Official video


More and more people are using the YouTube caption tool in the belief it offers information in an alternative format but it doesn’t. If it wasn’t so serious, you could say it offers a laugh – like the example above which shows the caption for all Student’s Unions, Associations and Guilds – and there are many other examples in this video alone which demonstrate just how much the caption tool is tokenism.

Multimedia has great potential for teaching and learning. It suits a range of learning preferences and offers variety and interaction with content. However, to be inclusive it needs to be provided in alternative formats and this is the step most people miss.  If you use YouTube captions take the time to check them out; the chances are they’ll be to poor to be of any real value.

Guide to Getting started with YouTube captions and transcripts  YouTube 

Today I set up a DIY Multimedia Google Group at!forum/olds-mooc-diy-multimedia  My challenge has been bringing together everyone who has expressed interest in my proposal.  The cloud profile template has space for name, homepage, department, institution and twitter hashtag but no email address. Contacts came through google groups, various clouds, email and blog comments with no obvious simple way of getting back in touch. I could post comments on some clouds but not others; some had discussion threads but no comment options and some users had a profile but not cloud! In the end I posted information on those clouds I could, on the OLDSMOOC Google Groups and on #OLDSMOOC Twitter. I’m finding the organisational functionality of the technology frustrating. Those familiar with the tools are at a distinct advantage and I wonder how many who have not used Cloudworks or Google Groups/Hangups are struggling. I appreciate the opportunity to explore their affordances but it’s at the expense of valuable opportunities for OLD collaborative working.

I don’t want to sound negative and am genuinely interested in the experience of being lost in new ways of working. It’s empowering to have this range of tools to choose from and make personal choices about forging a structure in which to work – very much an example of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) in action. I’m hoping everyone who expressed interest in my proposal to support staff engaging with audio and video will find their way into the Google Group or maybe someone will suggest an alternative more workable option. This is flexible learning after all.

My main concern is how technology overload creates potential barriers. OLD is important but so is encouraging and supporting staff to come online in the first place. I’ve worked with VLEs for over a decade but there have been occasions these past few days where I’ve wanted to run screaming from my laptop and mooc the mooc once and for all. It would be easy to stick with what I know and do something different – like put the laptop to one side and go and do something different instead – but I’m genuinely excited by the networking and opportunities to share expertise. Digital literacies are so important and the best way to develop them is to get in there. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, posting in the wrong place, or posting the same thing too many times, all of which I’ve done in the past few days! We’re all in this together and for all it might not sound like it – I’m having a lot of fun.

No weekend break on a MOOC. Activities were scheduled throughout Week 1 and by Day 5 (today) I should have a team, a study circle and be ready to brainstorm. (For anyone cringing at the use of the word brainstorm look here for the latest thinking).

So far I have:

Are you keeping up?  Over on Google Groups I’ve posted a new thread on my proposal!topic/olds-mooc-open/xy_0GS1is74; I’ve also tweeted via #OLDSMOOC. I’ve tried to create a Google Hangout and failed so far.

My problem is linking interested people. Already I’ve had an gentle email suggesting some of my responses have been in the wrong place! I’m not sure on MOOC-ing protocols – should I chase people or wait for them to contact me? Up to now I’ve been proactive but have concerns about the time needed to keep on top; as this week goes on there will be even less time available. Actually getting started with the Online Learning Design seems a long way off. I’m still trying to get familiar with the clouds, groups and hangups. It seems unless everyone is in the same place it’s hard to make connections.

For me, the broad range of technology on OLDSMOOC is a barrier. Good learning curve but it replicates what often happens when technically competent people lead those further across on the spectrum of technical confidence. I’m not exiting the MOOC building yet; I think once the group is established with agreed lines of communication then contact with will be quicker and easier – but I haven’t got there yet!

If anyone would like to join my group, I’ve proposed developing a user guide to staff adopting  a DIY approach to using audio and video in their teaching; this will cover the media capture and production and be aimed at the beginner – and my preferred mode of contact remains my work email :-)

Having a primary interest in the social effect of the internet, in particular on higher education, I’m running to stand still with the MOOC experience. Every MOOC I take – currently the JISC/OU OLDsMOOC on Online Learning Design and the soon to start Coursera MOOC on E-learning and Digital Cultures – is another step towards the future. The affordances of MOOCs are overwhelming in terms of building networks of shared expertise and interest across all boundaries of time and geography. MOOCs do what the internet does best. All the old clichés about harnessing  the power of technology come to mind.

MOOCs are also providing opportunities to revisit the way virtual learning is constructed. I’m using the OLDSMOOC to explore online learning design with multimedia. This has now shifted from the professional studio and become a real possibility for everyone with the means of access. Yes, it takes time and there is a learning curve, but that curve has decreased significantly over the past few years. I want to build on the DIY approach at Lincoln where staff do their own media production to enhance their teaching and learning resources. I hope to produce a collaboratively formed set of guidance on DIY audio and video. Key to successful multimedia is inclusive practice where alternative formats are seen as an integral stage of pre-production rather than a bolt on post-production afterthought.

PBS Newshour examines the MOOC phenomena suggesting the current boom in online learning could change higher education.  The video, How Free Online Courses Are Changing the Traditional Liberal Arts Education’  is a perfect example of how learning online could look. It can be watched, downloaded and listened too. Best of all there is a full and complete transcript, provided as though it were totally natural. Which it should be. Yet it’s unusual enough for me to pick it up and write this blog post.

Multimedia should look like this. As MOOCs stimulate attention to online learning design, they offer a valuable opportunity to revisit our digitally inclusive practice.

MOOCs are great on so many levels. It’s hard to know where to start but already its’ clear that prioritising and organisation are key to MOOC success. How the tutors are managing to keep up with all the postings I don’t know; possibly lots of caffeine and late nights/early mornings lie ahead.

A key challenge is the proliferation of places to work in. It’s early days on the OLDs MOOC but already there is additional email traffic to manage and multiple new online places to explore (Cloudworks, Google Groups, Bibsomony etc). The summary of all the blog posts which mention MOOCs is a neat example of how the internet draws together shared interest. But is it all too much?  Digital confidence directly relates to existing experience – in particular with finding your way around social networking platforms –  for participants new to working online this in itself may pose a barrier.

When it comes to online presence, I prefer less to more – like single sign-on in reverse – one post appears in multiple places. I would be interested to know how other people manage their online lives and have posted this question in google groups – or was it my cloud in cloudworks?  I’ve had so many MOOC windows I was getting confused. Friday activities included View and discuss the presentation introducing learning design for the OLDS MOOC. Somewhere I saw an instruction not to start a new thread but couldn’t find where I’d read it.. There didn’t seem to be one which fitted the instruction. It all got a bit messy.

Is OLDs MOOC is using reverse psychology where having a proliferation of places to post is showing less is best? Or an example of technology dominating the pedagogy and/or the user experience. OLD is open ended – there are always new tools and new ways of using them so by definition OLD can never be finished – but in terms of learning design there is a risk the practice gets lost in the process. For me, learning design has to focus on the affordances of the software and keep the interface simple. As tweeted on #oldsmooc this is a learning curve on massiveness.

My response to Friday’s activity was to comment on the use of automatic captions on the YouTube presentation at They are inaccurate and difficult to read.

You Tube captions are inaccurate and difficult to read

The use of Multimedia in learning design offers powerful opportunities for meeting a range of learning preferences but all too often the provision of that information is limited to single or inadequate formats. It would be good to see OLDs MOOC following JISC TechDis advice on inclusive practice and setting an exemplary example with audio and video for others to follow.

My cloud – probably invisible in the cumulus mass – is here