Troubling boundaries (and cats)

Where my research is concerned, I have trouble with boundaries

I’ve said this before (Know Your Limits) and am likely to do so again. It’s nowhere more prevalent than this blog. I start new posts all the time but finish them less often. Too many ideas in my head and not enough boundaries.

There it is again!

It’s getting worse as the research progresses. The more I reduce the data for analysis, the more I feel the need to give contextual background. I save in one place I but increase elsewhere. On reflection, this might show how digital shifts themselves are inextricably linked to all aspects of higher education. Show me what doesn’t involve a digital agenda and I’ll eat my blog.

baby wearing a large hat
image from pixabay – no attribution required

This week I’ve taken leave and allocated it PhD time. the intention was at least one research-related (and completed) post. The boundary issue is becoming critical. This blog was about Digital Impostor Syndrome (DIS). It’s not core to my research but is related (I rest my case!) in that I’ve a partially-generated theory which suggests DIS might underpin digital shyness and resistance.

Reluctance to engage in online activity is well documented, for staff as well as students. Colleague Patrick Lynch and I facilitate Module Two of the PG Cert in Academic Practice (PCAP). We introduced it as a blended module because the group only meets 5 times in 10 weeks but our online activities were – I think it’s fair to say – not widely or enthusiastically adopted. We want to explore why not.

We’re told there’s too many competing pressures but in a  200 hour Level 7 module with only 15 hours contact time, we didn’t think it unreasonable to allocate a similar time to developing an online PCAP community. My previous TELEDA courses (Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age) were experiential (offering staff a student view of the VLE etc) and although successful then, it seems a similar approach may not work this time around.

Again – why not?

cartoon of single person facing a wall of technology

At this stage, I’m not suggesting the answer is Digital Impostor Syndrome (DIS). Evaluation may well reveal we set about it all wrong or made mistakes we’re not yet aware of. However, from an overall perspective, something prevents staff and students from contributing to online forums, blogs, wikis or other interactive google logo under a magnifying glassplaces (when the same people often communicate through social media). This is against a discourse of education technology transforming – even revolutionising – higher education.

Houston – we have a mismatch.

Is it nerves about negative responses? A recent event on student blogging revealed individual URLs being deliberately obscured to prevent the blogs being found by google, the rational being to reduce potential trolling or flaming. Another person went through their student posts editing out typos to prevent the department being associated with poor writing. Digital attitudes and practices vary, tend to be unique to individuals as well as vast in nature. To become ‘digital’ is to change behaviours in hundreds of different ways and I found it useful for my research to have a catch-all phrase like ‘digital shifts’ to refer to any or all of the component parts.

I’m gathering the themes for my data analysis and was wondering if iI should add Digital Impostor Syndrome to my list. Of all the reasons for keeping a blog (and there are many – which is another post!) the opportunity to condense something large into a smaller space can be a meaningful challenge. It not only forces critical reflection but the ensuing post becomes a useful reference.

So I began a post on DIS. Firstly, it needed an explanation of what Impostor Syndrome was, then an explanation of ‘digital’ in that context. This involved a detour into ‘literaries’ as socially-situated practice with situated learning inevitably segueing into communities of practice (I’d been wanting explore misconceptions around Wenger’s work for some ing time) and before you could say Tweet, another 500 words were written. I drew a line, but not before the Browne Review of HE and teaching accreditation for academics -which was no surprise – much of my work revolves around the teaching/research nexus and the professionalisation debate – definitely another blog post for the future!

blue twitter bird

This deviation was highlighted the recent HEA change to ‘Advance HE‘ and the new Academic Professional Practice Apprenticeship Standard (outlined here). Having done some work around Degree Apprenticeships (inevitably blended therefore requiring attention to online design and delivery) I watched this video which included an outline of Epigeum’s new resource University Teaching: Core Skills: a new online training programme.

The language of ‘Skills’ and ‘Training’ in association with T&L in UK HE are like spontaneous combustion. 500 words later my thoughts on marketisation, neo-liberalism, metrics and competency checklists have hit the page, Taking a deep breath, I return to the concept of professional academic development. Comparing the Epigeum content and our Design 4 Active Learning (D4AL) approach reminds me the rationale blog for D4AL is long overdue (draft outline here).

By now I’ve Tweeted , uploaded photos to Facebook, re-watched the grandcat playing a board game and am so far from the starting point I have to go through my notes to see what it was.

I think the boundary problem is self- evident.

I also think it can be explained.

My work has always been eclectic. As Senior Lecturer in Education Development, I didn’t have a single subject specialism and now, like others working across institutions and disciplines in what’s been called third space for professionals, I’ve acquired a variety of responsibilities and skills. I’ve been teacher, student and researcher, often at the same time, while also writing for publication and generating external income. If I had to identify areas of expertise I’d suggest transition to HE, open education, blended and online distance learning and inclusive practice. Oh – and my PhD on digital shifts.

Which – surprise! – is the subject of another post unpicking what ‘digital shifts’ might cover. Here’s a link to the draft I began earlier Digital Shifts

So – my problem with boundaries…

The edges of work responsibilities and interests overlap and blur. Colleagues say you can’t talk about T&L in 21st century without assuming it has a digital dimension but I find digital engagement is unique to individuals. There’s always a need to dissect what being ‘digital’ actually means in different contexts. It differs hugely and positivist, non-critical approaches miss the mark every time.

letter tiles spelling digital shifts

The complexity of digital contexts are partially to do with language, where the same phrases mean different things to different people, and also connected to the independence of HEI against a lack of central guidance or conformity (observation not a critique!). The tradition of academic tribes and territories going their own subject-specialist ways contributes while I’ve written elsewhere about education technologists creating their own TEL-world which is mutually exclusive. See The Invisible Tribes and Territories of the TEL People and TEL People, Poetry and Language 

The boundary issue is also about personal identity.

I don’t know where I belong.

jigsaw peices in the shape of a brain with some missing

Is it a school of education because of my research, a technology enhanced learning team through my CMALT accreditation or a CPD/academic practice unit via my Pedagogy-first approach with D4AL. There will always be a digital dimension and I’m about how technology can be used rather than how it works or what to do when it breaks – so at least I know I’m not in ICT!

This lack of confidence in my identity takes me back to Digital Impostor Syndrome – which takes me back to the themes for my data analysis – and hey presto – I’m back with my research.

Did I tell you – I have a problem with boundaries…

barbed and wire fencing

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be the change

laptop with the countries of the world

The end of 2017 has been marked by a two incidents. First was the laptop. A complaint was made about me using one in a meeting – ergo I was not paying attention. A week later the issue of devices in meetings came up again. Different context but same person who clearly feels strongly about the subject. I have some sympathy. Over the years presenting/lecturing has changed. These days we look over a sea of bent heads rather than people’s faces but I believe banning devices is not the answer. We need to find ways to work with them rather than deny their presence and affordances.

pink and green direction arrows

This time I spoke up. Explained a laptop need not signify Facebook or catching up with email – for me it was like a reasonable adjustment – when my eyes are bad it’s easier to make notes in a strong, bold font than to write by hand.

Hold that thought…

The second incident was a conversation with a lecturer who said it isn’t the job of academics to show students how to use the VLE or develop digital literacy.  This explained a lot. Here I was face-to-face with the on-campus digital divide.

Again, I have sympathy. Academics have seen big changes in HE.  The spectre of  the internet lurks in dark corners. There’s no avoiding digitisation and not everyone lives comfortably in the digital world.

digital divide with a page and an ipad

There are those who blog, tweet, join #lthechat, network online, and generally support the use of education technologies in a variety of ways and means.

There are those who object to the use of mobile devices and don’t see developing digital graduate attributes as part of their remit.

book, phone and keyboard

This takes us back to the tribes and territories of the TEL People. How like attracts like and if your role is about technology, the chances are you  tend to work with staff who use it willingly. The more digitally shy won’t come to your lands or speak your language and on those rare occasions we venture into their worlds, we’re often viewed with suspicion. We’re the techies, geeks, magicians of code with esoteric skills. We are Othered.

This digital divide – cue lightbulb – means embedding digital graduate attributes into modules, or using VLE tools which support collaborative online working, is not going to happen without structural change.

Right?

It’s not going to happen if things stay the way they are.

image of keyboard and social media icons from pixabay

This is where we are:

  • 30 years of computers in education.
  • 20 years of VLE at universities.
  • 10 years of Web 2.0 style social media supporting user-generated content and file sharing.

In the second decade of 21st century, I get a complaint about using a laptop in a meeting.

Christmas is coming and mobile devices are high on present lists. The age at which children get connected drops every year.  For all its critique, the phrase ‘digital native’ actually fits because they’ve never known an analogue world.

Typical ‘fresh-from-school’ students arrive with a set of digital social practices, honed through their teenage years, replicated and reinforced by family and friends, taken advantage of by media advertisers. In short, their internet experience mirrors the society they live in.

a borken mirror with the text Black Mirror in white capital letters

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is either prescient or stating the bleedin’ obvious. Of course this is what lies ahead. If you haven’t watched the series you should. Be scared, very scared – but at least be prepared for the future and understand the value of critique.

In the same way car engines have become more mysterious, people engage in digital life with no understanding of how it works. It just does. In the way the ignition fires the engine, our devices connect and our personalised digital landscape unfolds. But not for everyone.

Many working in HE don’t have digital footprints and rarely use the internet for anything other than email or access to university systems.

mobil phon with a landscape of trees and a castle emerging from the screen

They’re not alone. A recent Lloyds Bank report states “More than 11 million people in the UK do not have basic digital skills. One out of every 11 completely avoids the internet.”  while the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reports a digital skills crisis. There’s more research about people not being online than how to encourage the critical skills and capabilities of those already there.

What can we do?

As learning technologists, as enhancers of learning and teaching – with or without technology (but in 2018 it’s likely to be there) – we have a responsibility to bridge on-campus digital divides. Its not just reaching the digitally shy and resistant, it’s promoting critical digital skills as being integral to other HE literacies and specialisms.

laptop wth screen showing the words Fake News

We have to find ways to start conversations about digital graduate attributes and digital CPD for staff. We need to leave our Territories of TEL and get into the heart of the university. Align our work with that of the learning development and academic practice teams, with those talking about learning gain, employability awards, TEF work and not forgetting the importance of the student voice in all of this.

Remember the thought from the top of the page – the one about reasonable adjustments?

TEL people need to talk about inclusive practice, how digital technologies can widen and support access but at the same create barriers. The sector is moving towards inclusion as the norm, reasonable adjustments as universal design. Watch this space. In January the Digital Academic soapbox will be out.

image showing a drawing of a bar of soap and a box representing a digital soapbox

Let’s be the change we want to see in the world.

Rethink the relationships between institutions, staff and students.

Revisit our digital lenses. They need a clean and polish every now and then and sometimes a shift in their focus.

The time has come.

Seasons greetings to one and all.

a merry christmas message