me and mendelay are mates

cartoon explosion

How much is too much? Or not enough? Overload warning – drowning not waving – data data everywhere. Explode. Head. Ready.

Weekends and bank holidays are for research. Any part-time researcher saying otherwise is lying!

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a set of Nvivo workshops alongside an introduction to Refworks and Endnote. Been there before but you know how it is – use it or lose it. Guess which happened?

I’ve decided to work with Mendelay.

My relationship with referencing tools one of start but not finish. As a result my most comprehensive list of references is hand constructed. Not the way to do it. This time – I promised – once and for all – I’d face my bibliographic fears.

I like Mendelay.

logo for Mendelay

With so many research processes being online, the management of research data and literature has become a digital capabilities issue. You could say the same about learning and teaching but as TEL-People know, the link is more tenuous. Workshops are where TEL-People come face-to-face with the reality of digital adoption. This is often far removed from TEL-World – as you might expect – but the distances involved can still be a surprise. Coming face-to-face with low levels of digital knowledge is essential for designing support where it’s needed.

jisc digital capabilities model

The Jisc digital capabilities profiles include one for researchers. For me, it demonstrates how research processes cut cross the elements. Apart from data literacies and working with multiple formats, there’s the grey identity area (as both staff and student), dissemination through publication and conference plus involvement in a range of online networks. Social media and research are natural partners but not everyone is a natural online communicator while the most powerful research tools can also be the most challenging. SPSS and Nvivo are not for faint digital hearts.

computer screen with image of books

I like working with Nvivo. It fascinates me how interpersonal communications like interviews can be digitised, themed and linked, highlighting connections you didn’t see before. I’m self taught from the days of Nvivo 9 so the workshops were a useful opportunity to update to 11 and see what tricks I’ve missed. Nvivo Word Clouds are amazing!

Research software encapsulates all the issues around developing digital skills and one of these is the shift from customised, institutional help to generic, online resources. This goes alongside a move to DIY where you’re expected to RTFM (find things out for yourself); a policy which could only be imagined by the digitally confident or non-tech user, either a refusenik or with someone else doing it for them.

I know my way around the internet but still waste a lot of time trying to find things out for myself.

range of tools for DIY

Well made generic videos can show you where to click but are less successful with the why and the wherefore. Even the brilliantly made Nvivo Water project – custom designed to demonstrate all the options – can’t cater for every potential scenario. Ultimately there’s no off-the-shelf substitute for the experience and expertise of other people.

Back to data.

Back to Mendeley.

If you don’t use a digital referencing tool you should bite the digital bullet and give one a try. I settled for Mendeley because it’s more than a referencing tool. It offers social bookmarking (like Delicious or Diigo) and my bibliographies are not tied to an institution. It has all the features you’d expect i.e. cloud and desktop versions, citation options for Word etc. I can access it anywhere and get to take it with me when I leave.

computing technologies

My research data is already in digital formats; interviews transcribed and supplementary materials online. The next task is getting it all into Nvivo and start coding. It’s been over a year since I spent time with Nodes.  It will be a massive task but hopefully a rewarding one. My research explores how staff concceptualise teaching and learning in a digital age and I’m looking forward to seeing what Nvivo does with millions of words from three years of data collection.

Me and Mendelay plus Nvivo are going to be best mates this year or at least – that’s the plan!

does learning design + TEL = the future?

typeset image from

Language matters. Whether its training or lecture capture instead of teaching or recording resources, the words we use and the ways we interpret them are full of unconscious bias. When designing learning, one of the first steps is to bust the jargon. Ask the questions. What are we saying here and what does it mean?

This week I attended a workshop on Marking and Feedback with Prof Lin Norton. Lin spoke about final vocabulary, a term used by philosopher Richard Rorty which refers to words containing deeply held beliefs and assumptions without the necessary explanations. For example feedback comments like good, excellent, exactly what I’m looking for. The marker knows what they mean but it isn’t clear to the recipient. Lin says final vocabulary leaves students no room to manoeuvre. Markers need to make comments which open up conversations rather than close them down. Like active listening or going back to Socratic questioning. Those ancient Greeks really knew their stuff.

question mark from pixabay

The tendency to make uncritical use of language is common. We’re often more subjective than we realise. I think I’m a critical reflector but there’s always something new to learn.  I don’t have a data driven approach to practice. A bit dyscalculic as well as suspicious of quantitative data sets. No matter how the figures are presented, I want to know the stories behind them. But – I’m also an action researcher and promoter of experiential learning. I like critical reflection loops which take you on a journey of change.

data image from pixabay

Recently I’ve come to realise I do have a data driven approach; it’s my interpretation of what data represents which is skewed. Phrases like Big Data or Learning Analytics made me think randomized controlled trials or NSS scores and VLE dashboards. I knew data didn’t  have to be numbers – I’m doing qualitative research for heavens sake (Doh!) but my subjective interpretation was linking the two together. It’s only by developing a learning design approach to TEL with an expert data-king colleague which has uncovered a bias I wasn’t consciously aware of.

scrabble tiles from

How often do we act without questioning that we do? Last week I blogged about the impact of research on TEL and the literature TEL people use to inform their practice. I’m still searching for answers. Let’s broaden it out. Where’s the evidence base for learning and teaching? Is there a contemporary equivalent to Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987)

  • encourages contact between students and faculty,
  • develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourages active learning,
  • gives prompt feedback,
  • emphasizes time on task,
  • communicates high expectations, and
  • respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

The authors claim these support ‘six powerful forces in education’

  • activity,
  • expectations,
  • cooperation,
  • interaction,
  • diversity,
  • responsibility.

Spot the gaps. It would make a useful online activity. I’d add the need for critical thinking, reflection and creativity as well as having an evidence base. Let’s put scholarship in there. Being research informed and engaged.  This week my colleague and I have scoured the UK literature  around L&T in HE (e.g. Knight, Biggs, Prosser, Trigwell, Trowler, Race, Baud, Nicol, Moon, Brookfield etc) but can’t find anything so succinct or contemporary.

Maybe the subject is too complex to be reduced to bullet points. Maybe it reflects its late arrival. In many ways pedagogic research in HE is still the new kid on the block. It’s not a happy partner to the REF and HE staff having an ‘appropriate teaching qualification’ is a relatively recent requirement. The HESA returns for data on academic teaching qualifications was only introduced in 2012/13 with many  institutions still returning a percentage of ‘not known‘.

opening slide from lin Norton assessment workshop

Events like Lin Nortons are welcome opportunities to ask questions and discuss answers, as in the slide image above. I think they’re useful for TEL people. Marking and feedback are foundation elements of the student experience. Sometimes it can help to separate them out from the technology – which in itself risks becoming a distraction – in order to examine more closely the fundamental principles of assessment practice. Not all TEL people come from a teaching background so it helps to make TEL about learning as well technology. The problem is the language. Again, language matters. Too often when you say you work with TEL or in a TEL Team you’re instantly categorised into a techie box.  This is one of the reasons I believe TEL needs to be reversed. Less of the T and more L please Bob.

There’s a phrase associated with the early days. RTFM stood for read the ******** manual.  All computers came packed with a doorstop of an instruction book. RTFM soon came to mean don’t ask me how the bloody thing works, go and look it up yourself.

Today the technology has (allegedly) changed to a more intuitive click and play  approach – as well as being introduced almost from birth – and the internet has replaced the manual. Today we know how it works. We need to be asking where it’s being used and why. What do we know about how people learn? What is the equivalent to Chickering and Gamson’s principles for 21st century TEL? If we’re promoting digital feedback then lets look at Lin Norton’s research or have a TEL Team discussion around the HEA’s Marked Improvement or visit outputs from the Oxford Brookes ASKe project or REAP.

I believe the design of learning is an essential part of TEL and we should adopt a scholarly approach to our practice by being more research informed and engaged. In which case maybe RTFM is not redundant but needs updating to RTFL. Read the ******** literature.

Now the HEA Subject Centres have closed and the HEFCE funded CETLs have come to an end who is promoting research into learning and teaching practice? Students are paying huge amounts of money for their time at universities where traditional teaching methods are still evident and VLE resemble repositories. Lets take a fresh look at the TEL people what we do because it looks a lot like learning design + TEL = the future.