It isn’t technology it’s learning design

communication-pixabay

This began as a PhD reflection but turned into a blog post because the issues matter. We need to talk. What has gone wrong? Quite a lot.

December 1 was the first Graduate School Research workshop day. I thought joining in remotely would be a motivator. I’m self-funding so every opportunity for contact is welcome. Via Collaborate and a fixed camera I followed the slides and presentations during the morning but couldn’t join in the activities. In the afternoon the sound was lost. I’m hoping the recording will be ok and wondering when it will appear on the VLE. The cognitive connection has already faded.

What is meant by the phrase ‘online distance learning?’ What did I get from passively listening and watching on my laptop? Not a lot to be honest. The common model of distance learning is still a delivery one. Recorded lectures are seen as progression and if you build in some formative MCQ then Hallelujah – you have an online course.

My PhD includes mandatory research and ethics modules. They’re produced by Epigeum, so expensive and considered gold standard. I’ve sat alone in my room clicking through linear screen after screen of content in order to take the test at the end. It’s lonely and my learning is surface recall rather than any deeper approach achieved by cognitive understanding via critical reflection or discussion with colleagues.

What has gone wrong with the promise of student centered, interactive collaborative learning – online? How can the principles of Social Learning Theory be applied to what is fundamentally learning in isolation?

digital-tech-pixabay

In the THES last month there was a piece called Mass Learning must mean web based study It claimed the elements exist to make online learning happen, but ‘institutional inertia’ creates lack of progress. Thinking this might refer to the invisibility of on-campus digital divides or lack of recognition of diverse digital capabilities I read on. Technology has its problems I’m told – and here the piece links to Distance and Discontent the Downside of Digital Learning – but it will continue to evolve, solving all the negative issues as it does.

There are barriers such as the need for more teaching hours (at last – acknowledgement it requires additional resources rather than less to build and run effective online learning environments) plus new forms of examination and inclusion of ‘the broader social and cultural benefits of higher education’ but hey the piece goes on – none of these are insuperable. No. The problem is the university itself. Over the past decades they’ve continued to expand their physical presence at the expense of their virtual one, to a point where they can no longer afford to go online. As the author says, Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas but – don’t you know – technology is still the solution!

turkeys-pixabay

As if this were not depressing enough, the Distance and Discontent piece offers two further narratives of online education failure. Against a sector which still shouts about the transformative power of digital environments, something isn’t fitting. The rhetorical promise of e-learning solutions continues to be promoted in headlines, straplines, Jisc-speak and conference halls. In the meantime research and anecdote speak of digital depository models of VLE usage, empty discussion forums and neglected project sites return broken links and 404 errors.

So often over the years I’ve seen digital layers added onto existing face-to-face practice. It rarely creates effective online learning because it isn’t about the technology, it’s about learning design.


images from pixabay.com 

Being on the edge of things

In an archive edition of Monitor (1964) Philip Larkin talks about Hull being ‘a little on the edge of things’ and how he ‘quite liked being on the edge‘.  Hull is my home. I know about being on the edge and when it comes to my PhD it’s the same story. I need to  find a research community and when it comes to my subject, Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), I don’t know where that is.

So who am I and what am I doing? it’s back to the TEL People. In previous posts I’ve written about their tribes and territories in terms of identity and language.  Today I’m reflecting on TEL research. Who’s doing it and where do TEL People go research support?

a plant surviving behind barbed wire

It was no surprise I was the only one at the University of Northampton’s postgraduate induction week to be researching online education or how out of 6 of us within the School of Education, I’m the only one researching outside of the compulsory sector. I call my research educational but the educational research discipline has never felt like home.  For years I’ve been writing about the loneliness of the long distance learner and already at Northampton I feel like I’m on the edge of things again.

For the PhD this week I’ve been reading the disciplines and discipline of educational research by David Bridges. As assessor for the REF, Bridges looked at the diversity of disciplinary approaches to educational research (ER). He asks if ER should be seen as a single subject or are there more benefits to adopting a multi-disciplinary identity. Applying either to my own research assumes it already sits within a discipline but I don’t know where to find it.

image of a maze

The word discipline carries the idea of unique qualities. This is where Becher’s first work on academic tribes and territories began. Based on research carried out in the 1980s, it was a time when you were defined by your subject. You were a sociologist, psychologist, archaeologist. If you didn’t have an …ology you were a chemist, physicist, geographer or historian. Your ideological home then shaped the ways in which you conducted research inquiries. The second edition (2001) looked beyond the traditional hold disciplines had over research epistemologies. It brought in influences from learning and teaching alongside the shift to more practice-based as well as interdisciplinary programmes. This reflected the changing HE landscape and by the 3rd edition (2012) Trowler was suggesting epistemological essentialism no longer suited the complexity of HE.

So the idea of a single disciplinary community is dead. Or is it? Bridges concludes by asking if the disciplines themselves contained intrinsic research validity which is weakened by adopting a multidisciplinary approach. The debate continues but where does TEL fit in?

finding-a-home-pixabay

Finding a home for my PhD has always been a problem. In spite of it dealing with sector-wide issues around blended learning, no one has wanted it. It’s a touch ironic how a 3 year study of the attitudes of academic staff towards digital pedagogy and practice is so unloved. Maybe if TEL was recognised as a discipline in its own right it might gain more respect. As it is, TEL People tend to be classified as techies (when we’re not) and our outputs seen as less valuable than the related disciplines like education and computing science where we’re most often shoehorned in to fit.

It’s clear there’s more to read and reflect on with regard to disciplinary difference and the location of TEL. Trowler (2014) writes about strong and moderate essentialist approaches while Neuman, Parry, and Becher (2002) allocate disciplines into Pure, Applied, Hard and Soft; binaries which inevitably contain implications of preference. In this taxonomy, Technology is Hard Applied while Education is Soft Applied an TEL crosses both boundaries so straight away there’s an epistemological clash.

house on the edge of a jetty

I’m sure that where ever I find my TEL home, it’s still going to be on the edge of things.


Bridges, D. (2006) The disciplines and discipline of educational research. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40 (2) pp 259–272

Neuman, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002). Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts: A conceptual analysis. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 405–417.

Trowler, P. (2014) Depicting and researching disciplines, strong and moderate essentialist approaches. Studies in Higher Education. 39:10. 1720-1731


All images from pixabay


Why don’t I speak French?

page of french text

Why don’t I speak French? I learned it at school and went to French night class – twice. For 10 years I car-shared with a colleague who was fluent in French. What can I show for it today other than  un, deux, trois, and Je m’appelle Sue.

There’s a connection with speaking French and my PhD.  I’m at the University of Northampton’s Postgraduate Induction week. UoN are moving to a new Waterside Campus and changing their learning and teaching. Leaving behind the traditional f2f lecture, they’re adopting a blended approach via greater use of digital tools. Sounds exciting but it would do wouldn’t it – I’m a VLE advocate and at risk of extinction. There aren’t many of us left.

I’ve met my PhD supervisors; Ale Armellini and Ming Nie. Ale is the Director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in HE and both Ale and Ming worked at Leicester with Gilly Salmon in the days of the Media Zoo. They have digital provenance and talking to Ale is like sharing a language – in a good way. He gets what I’m doing and this doesn’t happen often.  Ale suggests learning online involves a move from literacy to competency to fluency and we should aim to be bilingual, seamlessly transferring from one environment to another. Online. Offline. Online. Bourdieu comes to mind. A habitus binary. Digital fluency as a form of cultural capital. Digital capital.

Parlez-vous francais? written in chalk on a blackboard

So why don’t I speak French? I don’t have to. I don’t want to. If I were lost in France it would be different but I’m not so I don’t.

My PhD is about technology enhanced learning (TEL). It explores how staff transfer their f2f practice to online environments. Based on my TELEDA courses, it shows how resistance to VLE can be reduced by adopting immersive approaches to TEL support.

The irony is this research into digital resistance has been so difficult to home. One institution changed my role, wiping off ten years of  TEL work  and ending my TELEDA courses. Another rejected my PhD along with three years of data saying they had no supervision. It’s a year since my Thesis Whisperer debut on how supervision issues have haunted me (Know Your Limits). Ale is the first supervisor in five years to have a relevant TEL background. There’s another irony in how all these blocks on the PhD journey reinforce its message; digital divides on campus continue to separate the digital and non-digital speakers.

digital divide with a page and an ipad

The motivation for my PhD was to explore staff resistance to TEL. My approach was to put them into a digital environment and use that medium for critical reflection. I believed a supported immersive experience would make a difference. A bit like taking them to France with a phrase book and a fluent French speaker to intermediate if necessary. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the TEL-People and how we are a unique tribe with our own territory. https://digitalacademicblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/the-invisible-tribes-and-territories-of-the-tel-people Maybe there is something about our language which I need to consider too.

dandilion growing out of parched ground

TEL-People are fluent with TEL-Speak and TEL-Beingness. We show, tell and demonstrate from our digital positions but where do we involve?  I have an ongoing battle with the use of the word ‘training’ with regard to technology. We do not train we teach. If we don’t have knowledge about how people learn then we should do.  TELEDA was built around sharing, discussion, collaboration, synthesis and critique. It was much more time and resource heavy than providing workshops and helpsheets but made a real difference to how participants changed their own TEL practices.  TELEDA was rejected just like my research has been. The buzz phrase today is digital capabilities. The Jisc model (below)is not perfect. I’d like to see digital inclusion made explicit as as one of the elements, but it’s a good enough place to explore the multiplicity of being digital in 21st century.

jisc digital capabilities model

Twice this month I’ve stood in front of rooms of teaching staff and no one has heard of it. I would suggest TEL-People are using a language which is only spoken by a minority. Yet our role is to encourage the majority to change how they teach.  We need to ask more critical questions about what we do. We work in institutions of higher education but how well do we apply the rules of teaching and learning to our own TEL practices? Should we be looking to the teaching of languages for ideas? Meaningful adoption of change requires a cultural shift and here governance plays a part. Without it there is no impetus for change. I would learn French if I had to, just as staff at Northampton are turning to the digital because their current ways of working are changing. It’s a dramatic move and one I’ll be watching with interest.

image showing python programming language

In the meantime I’ll take back to my own TEL-People the suggestion we consider a linguistic route and approach TEL as being ‘Digital’ for speakers of other languages. Rather than see pedagogical practice as being online or offline we should see it through a bi-lingual lens as Ale suggests. After all communication is at the heart of learning and teaching wherever it takes place.

‘si au début vous ne réussissez essayer somthing diffrent’


images from https://pixabay.com

The VLE and Machines of Loving Grace #nationalpoetryday

grey robot looking at a red flower

Yesterday was #nationalpoetryday. When I think the digital in the poetry world it’s Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which comes to mind. Brautigan offers a vision of a cybernetic future from 1997. This is the year  the report from the Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education was published. In Brautignan’s cybernetic ecology, machines have freed us from labour and watch us live the Utopian dream. In the Dearing Report, the VLE represented a more efficient and effective future, internationalizing higher education, reaching the parts people couldn’t reach, crossing traditional barriers of time and distance and so on and on and on…

It didn’t really happen did it?

The internet bought us the global village as predicted by McLuhan at a time when television represented cutting edge technology. Now we have the internet. Social media has given a voice to everyone with access. VLE have revolutionised higher education – or maybe not.

In Our Digital Capabilities Journey Kerry Pinny describes a 25% response rate to the Jisc Discovery Tool at her university. When I piloted this self-diagnostic digital capabilities tool earlier this year, a professional services department achieved over 80% response rate (not the TEL-Team or ICT I hasten to add) whereas a Faculty scored so low it was meaningless. 25% would have been a dream. Kerry asks how to reach the other 75%. I wonder this too. The V in VLE seems to have passed so many people by.

open laptop with the word learning on the screen

Liz Bennett @LizBennett1 and Sue Folley @SueFolley from the University of Huddersfield facilitated a D4 Learning Design workshop at Hull this week. The focus was digital capabilities but in a covert, through the back door, approach. Using Appreciative Inquiry and focusing positive rather than negative or deficit thinking, we constructed learning activities which blended face-to-face and online interaction. Inevitably the discussion turned to VLE adoption and the question of reaching the unreachables. I’m never sure whether to laugh and cry at how we need subterfuge to trap people into dealing with VLE but was also struck by Sue’s comment that everyone across the sector has the same problem.

Its nearly 20 years since the Dearing Report. What ever we’ve been doing, in that time it isn’t working.

panning drawing with pencil and ruler

Both Dearing’s Committee and poet Brautigan saw technology as the future. Well, the future has arrived and I don’t see the VLE as having made a great deal of difference. There are pockets of excellent practice but overall the dominant model of use remains a digital despository document. Video may be more prevalent but ultimately it’s supplemented read this with watch this. How about do something with this instead?

Postmodernism is vanishing into the wings. Learning analytics is stepping centre stage, bringing Big Data with all its positivist baggage of targets, metrics and ranking with it. SCoT also seems in danger of disappearing. The Social Construction of Technology suggested the development of machines was dependent on the people who used them. The potential of the machine for change was not enough. In the 1960’s, McLuhan told us how new technology would replicate existing practice and in the 1980’s Bijker and Pinch were predicting new technologies would not determine human action but be shaped by it instead.

If a higher education is the passive transmission of knowledge, memorised and regurgitated for assessment, the VLE is perfect. We have made it into what we want it to be.

The question is – where do we go from here?

red question mark on a keyboard


All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


Image sources

Ludic Lego and theory head

IMG_0894

I don’t mean to be repetitive but there’s something of a theme going on here – the Lego has been out again. It was the final catch-up for LLI and the TEL-Team at the University of Hull for this academic year.  These ‘catch-ups’ are less formal than ‘meetings’. The idea was a regular slot for sharing news on the digital front. Library and Learning Innovation are student facing while the TEL-Team are staff facing but we both deal with learning technology so it makes sense to share practice – with tea and biscuits.

So far there’s been a number of instances of ‘I didn’t know  that!’ Which was the original idea. Then we decided to alternate news swapping with a more in depth look at something we’re involved with.  Fresh from the Lego Serious Play workshop it was suggested I say a bit more about it. As the essence of LSP is learning by doing, it made sense to dig out the Lego from the attic.

It reinforced how much Lego has changed! While the large box of mixed bricks contained a bit of everything; people, horses, spaceships, wheels and some Technic, it wasn’t as bright or diverse as Lego is today. There was a lack of eyes and other features like trees, flowers and smiley bricks plus a distinct lack of pink and orange. Also it wasn’t as ‘clickable’. If you’re serious about Lego Serious Play then a trip to a Lego Shop and investing in some pick ‘n mix is probably the way to go. But it didn’t stop the innovation. We built towers and (aspirational) movable objects then focused on creating a digital learning environment. The outputs were diverse and insightful. Many incorporated the blurring between real and virtual e.g. how we are located in dual environments as both staff and students and need to find common ground for effective communication.

An extra advantage for me is the insight into the thoughts and research practices of colleagues in LLI. The PhD application is being processed and the theory head is coming back. Doctorates are lonely experiences so opportunities to share thoughts are always welcome. Tweets following the Lego session led me to the Collision of Two Worlds blog post  by Carl Barrow (typical of the serendipitous learning affordances of social media).  Carl’s library scenario parallels my thoughts around the duality of f2f and virtual teaching spaces, while Lee Fallin has generously shared some of his EdD research on space. The focus is library space but the broader theoretical framework which brings together Marxist and postmodernist perspectives has had me rummaging on my bookshelves for David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, blowing the dust from Best and Kellner and reflecting on the power and control of an anti-pm (ex) supervisor for controlling the direction of your research! Now I’m beginning to re-engage with theory, the ‘academic library’ perspectives of my LLI colleagues is really helping, not only with regard to my own work but adding a different and relevant HE perspective. Maybe we should arrange some regular research catch-ups as well!

creativity as aerobic excercise for the brain #creativeHE

Creativeity takes courage blue badge

I was going to retire the Friday blog for the summer. Focus on the PhD I said. Do less social media and get back to my ‘…ologies’. But it’s been a #creativeHE week which deserves a blog. So here it is.

The #creativeHE  community is open for anyone interested in the subject of creativity in education. What is it? How does it manifest? In which ways can creative thought and action be embedded into curriculums and practice?

The week began with a request to offer an example of creativity.  But there is a question to be answered. What does ‘creativity’ mean?

creativity definition

Accepted interpretations include difference, innovation and originality. To step outside of the box of conventional thinking, be unrestrained by social expectations, demonstrate uniqueness of thought and action.  Lots to work with there! But then it gets more complex because where do our measures of diversity come from? How is difference defined? Who controls what is considered to be creative action in the first place? This rather beautifully segues into my Phd where I’m building a conceptual framework which seeks to explain how our attitudes and behaviours are influenced.

alert

PhD alert!!!  The teaching on my first MA was influenced by postmodernism’s insistence on the social construction of reality. At the time I found PM a useful explanation for diversity and difference. The limitations of language and power of cultural expectations fitted well with my research into parameters of gender. But there was philosophical trouble ahead.

Postmodernism was an intellectual attack on meta theory without seeming to realise the irony of  presenting an alternative meta-meta theory. Yet PM was all about irony so maybe it didn’t mind how within its single narrative around the validity of truth and knowledge (i.e. there wasn’t any) it carried within itself the weapons of its mass destruction.

Postmodernism was followed by critical realism. This conceded social structures were callable of generating discourse. Their causal effects had a realist quality but our knowledge of them would be forever fallible. Traditional conceptions of structure and agency were inseparable. They were linked in an invisible mesh of convention, expectation and belief. PhD alert end.

It’s a ‘good enough’ theory. We’re limited by social constraints and change requires an understanding of the forces which are preventing it from happening in the first place. You can apply this to creativity. The ability to solve problems through unique and innovative actions is partly what makes us human but we’re also capable of being creative for self-satisfaction. This is the internal creative drive seeking expression. However, we live within a society which is full of social conditioning and this includes behavioural expectations. It leaves two options. We offer creative action within culturally acceptable limits or apply the creative impulse to blow these limits apart. The ability to think so far outside the box it breaks all known rules seems to suggest we may be positioned in different places on a scale of creative thinking.

brain on a treadmill

The #creativeHE community is full of examples not only of creative thinking but of thinking about being creative. It’s good to sometimes step outside our boxes, practice some critical reflection and ask questions about the environments we live and work in. Taking part in something that exercises our creative muscles is as good for the brain as aerobic activity is for the heart. What we need to do is ask why we don’t all do a little bit more of it. Look out for #creativeHE the next time around!

brain on treadmill image from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201602/more-proof-aerobic-exercise-can-make-your-brain-bigger 
Alert image from https://pixabay.com/en/exclamation-mark-point-triangle-24144/ 

The #creativeHE team is led by Norman Jackson and Chrissie Nerantzi. It began as an extension of a PgCert/MA unit at MMU and sits within P2pU

We need to talk (and do pedagogical research) #lthechat #heachat

pixabay educationHE Teachers as Pedagogic Researchers was the final #lthechat for this academic year. It’s also the title of the pre-reading by Dr Abbi Flint on the HEA blog https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog/higher-education-teachers-pedagogic-researchers An appropriate choice before the summer chat-break. In these TEF times the topic of excellence in teaching is raising interest in scholarship. Valid questions are being asked, albeit with contentious answers but what matters is the conversation. Like the role of TEL in 21st century higher education – We Need to Talk!

The theory-practice divide between research and teaching is still a predicator of attitudes. There are many barriers to breach. Researchers say they don’t have time to teach and teachers don’t have time for research and those of us with TEL heads are caught in the middle where neither have time for our technologies.

So the #lthehat was spot on although they sneaked in an extra hashtag. #lthechat and #heachat took up 17 characters and space counts on twitter where brevity is part of the challenge fun. Browse through this beautifully presented Storify by Kandy Woodfield @jess1ecat for an overview of the session.

Like #lthechat I’m taking a break from the Friday blog this summer. It’s back to my research. Changing institutions involved  a PhD gap year. Part-time doctoral study with full-time work is always a challenge (alert -danger – warning) but to move as well verges on impossible.

alert

Yet it’s been unexpectedly valuable because time is integral to the learning process. Pause. Step away. Return. See how different everything looks. Change the context. Alter the view. When I look back over my PhD journey, which has been like a roller coaster on rocky rails, this is the year it coalesced. My research is about pedagogies and online environments, about supporting staff to become digitally confident and also about my own teaching practice. As practitioner-researcher I applied action research evaluation loops to inform the development of a teacher education programme.  This enabled me to work with pedagogic theory and examine the difference it made – or not.  It also opened the door to the research literature on digital education which is full of aspiration and magical thinking. Nowhere is the gap between theory and practice so wide and my research has positioned me in the vast open spaces in between.

teleda

Adopting a pedagogic research-mind forces critical examination. What did you do, why did you do it, how, where, when – all those questions which can be so difficult to answer. It’s like looking in a mirror and mirrors don’t always feel like friends.

Reflection is like technology. If you find it easy you risk forgetting what it’s like for those who don’t. Where courses have reflection built in, like practice placement, students can struggle with shifting from writing descriptive accounts to more crucially reflective ones. The research literature reinforces the value of reflective practice, both for learning and for life, but too often it’s another example where we tell students to do what we don’t do ourselves. Like using TEL, going to the library, or carrying out research projects.

dots

Too often we don’t draw the lines between the dots. We use TEL but don’t consider how it might be evidence for accreditation. We carry out our own inquiries into learning but don’t see it as a pedagogical research activity. It comes back down to sharing practice and the need to talk. For people who spend most of their working lives talking with students we can be less good at talking to each other.

So thanks #lthechat for the reminder and timely insight into the thoughts and experiences of so others across the sector.  It’s time to open up the research diary again, download NVivo and blow the digital dust off my data. Hello Phd. I’m back.

Smiley research trasnforming tweet

 

book and glasses image https://pixabay.com/en/phone-screen-technology-mobile-1052022/ 
danger image https://pixabay.com/en/animals-black-and-white-bomb-boom-985500/ 
Dots image  https://pixabay.com/en/polka-dots-blue-background-pattern-953366/