The Lockdown diaries week 5: less video conferencing and a work anniversary

Another week of lockdown, the death toll in hospitals in the UK has passed the 20,000 mark, the sun is still shining, I feel a building sense of restless. More traffic on the roads, more people out walking and cycling in groups, more police sirens, more indecision from the UK government, a bit more information from the Scottish Government who have at least published a framework for moving out of lockdown.

I’ve found this week quite hard; hard to stay focused on work, hard not to think endlessly about the wider consequences of what we are living through, hard not to feel guilt about the relative pleasure and privilege of my experience of a 21st century plague.  I switched off my computer on Friday, and had a proper day off, that made a difference.

There have been some highlights this week too particularly catching up with various people. Thanks Suzanne Hardy for wearing some fabulous shoes for our catch up with Lorna Campbell.  In case you were wondering dear reader, yes my standards have slipped and I was actually in my bare feet.  

This week also  marked a year since I started out on my own as a consultant and artist.  It’s been quite a year and I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has had enough faith in me to give me paid work over the past 12 months.  In particular, Melissa Highton and Stewart Nicol at Edinburgh University Nic Whitton at Durham University, Leigh-Anne Perryman at the OU, Rosemarie McIlwhan, Heriot Watt  University, Carina McGinty, GMIT, Eamon Costello at DCU and Karla Benske, GritED.

I remember joking with people last years as I was telling them about my decision to give up my job, and saying “well, what’s the worst that could happen?”  Never in my wildest, post Brexit, post Trump dreams did I think that one year on we would be living through a global pandemic. But here we are. I’m still standing as the song goes and hopefully I will be for another year. 

Perfect cue for a cheesy video . . .

The Lockdown Diaries week 4: more global video conferencing and some video resources

This weekend the sun has come out, the light and heat bring nature back to life. As I’ve been pottering around outside this morning enjoying simple things like potting out some seedlings, repainting the garden bench, it’s easy to forgot that the world has changed so much in the past for 4 weeks.

Over 15,000 people have now died of COVID-19 in the UK. There’s still not enough PPE for frontline workers. There is at the UK level anyway a void in leadership.  We are feed platitudes by interchangeable cabinet minsters at 5pm each day . . . We are told this is not the time to be angry, but maybe we should be. This piece by  Steven Methven in the London Review of Books blog is a powerful, personal response to that.

The past week has been quite busy for me. There was a welcome break and indeed quite a bit of excitement (more of the nervous kind for me in the lead up to it) and much needed energy boost from the Gasta Goes Global online event on Tuesday night. A huge congratulations to Tom Farrelly and everyone (too many to mention) who pulled this event off.  The speakers and and a limited audience were in a zoom room that was live streamed to YouTube for everyone else to watch and comment on. I was so impressed that there were summaries of the twitter and youtube chatter at the end, and what a way to finish with a song from Tom.  

I felt that all the presentations from Maha Bali, Martin Weller, Leigh Graves-Wolf, Frank Rennie, Mark Brown and me, give a really diverse set of reactions and perspectives around what is happening just now in education and what might happen in the future.  Of course I missed out half of what I wanted to say but really I wanted to highlight the danger of the spotlight effect or observational bias that I see particularly around the use of technology just now and in particular around the use and development of online proctoring systems. You can catch up with the recording of the event here.

On Wednesday night I joined another international session, this time with Virtually Connecting and a conference session hosted by Alan Levine and Maha Bali as part of the TCC Online Conference . The session was really lovely example of experiential learning as it illustrated the concepts, ethos and reality of Virtually Connecting through a virtually connecting session. 
Care is so important right now. Maha’s Gasta session encapsulated the need for care so well, do watch it – it really is only 5 minutes!

Care and sharing and extending opportunities for conversations is really at the heart of Virtually Connecting. I really am so glad to be able to be part of this community – and if you haven’t tried a VC session yet, dear reader, then I do urge to do join one soon.  The principles of hospitality are just as, if not even more important in an online setting. It was inspiring to here Alan and Mia Zamora share how they have used the principles of Virtually Connecting with their students.  You can catch up on the recording here.

Being self employed I have felt a bit removed from what has been happening on campuses in the past month. Whilst this does give me a bit more of an objective view, I have felt slightly useless at points. However during the week I was really pleased to see that a project I was in involved in last year, The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching is now being made available to all staff at Edinburgh (originally it was developed for staff involved in developing micro masters courses), and that it is proving really popular.  

screen shot of tweet for the Edinburgh Model for Online teaching letting people know it is full

During the design phase the team and particularly Michael Gallagher and myself designed and wrote the course were keen to focus on teaching, and really the principles of good teaching generally not just online teaching.

I also spotted but haven’t quite got the courage to watch them yet, that some video material I recorded for the Learning and Teaching Academy at Heriot Watt University back in January are now available and part of their openly available Watt Works Guides. God, January that does feel like years not moths ago. I even drove there  and that’s nearly 50 miles away! 

I’m trying to keep my creative activities going just now, but like everything that has peaks and troughs. However, this week I have been looking a bit more closely at COVID-19, well some of the images from microscopes, and this is one of my more visual reactions. 

photo of an artwork of COVID-19
Covid 19 by Sheila MacNeill, mixed media on cardboard


Stay safe dear reader, until next week. 

The Lockdown diaries week 3: a bit of a lull in videoconferencing

Another week of lockdown. As I write this the UK has passed 10,000 deaths from the COVID 19 virus.  We are heading to be one of, if not the, countries in Europe with the highest death toll.  In Scotland where live, the death toll is no where near as high as in England, but for a relative small country the death rate is still higher (566 at time of writing)  than other equivalent countries for example Denmark with 273 deaths (at time of writing).  

Our UK national response was too slow, our government messaging and actions seem inadequate – this piece in by Nesrine Malik in The Guardian today summed it up for me. Whilst I am glad that our Prime Minister has recovered, his illness continues to be used to deflect attention from the real issues, like the shortage of personal protective equipment, the need for mass testing and tracking and then of course some kind of plan for a return to some semblance of normality.

These wider issues continue to hoover around everything that I do.  Like veryone I guess, I have waves of hopelessness and  anxiety coupled with powerlessness.   However, life does go on and again, like everyone else I am settling into a kind of life in lock down rhythm.  Twitter in lock down has felt like a more positive experience over the past couple of weeks, mainly due to the level of sharing of resources, experiences etc. However it is still quite overwhelming and more and more crap is creeping back into my timeline, which again does bring another level of anxiety.  However I am grateful to those in my network for their support and kindness when I mentioned this last week in a tweet.  Care really is evident. 

My use of Zoom this week has been a bit more social with the addition of a surprise birthday party. For the record imho surprise online parties don’t really work without a lot of planning and a really experienced aka bossy person in charge. For one thing, if the “surprisee” is using a mobile phone it can take them quite a while to see everyone on the call, never mind try to unmute their mic, get their phone turned round the right way, whilst others are doing much the same . . .

Much more successful was joining in one of Ken Bauer’s  Educator Coffee (or tea) time sessions. It was so lovely to have a cuppa and chat with some lovely people from all over the world (Ken, Maha Bali, Autumm Caines, Joseph Murphy). This is something I think that should continue well after lock down ends.

On the work side, things are picking up and week 3 of lock down has felt a bit more ‘normal’ in that respect.  My only MS teams meetings were small ones, focused on work.   I get the feeling that people in HE anyway are managing go now take a breath and start thinking about “stuff” instead of just working  to the bone to get “stuff” online for the remainder of term/semester.  A short break before the next wave of what to do now . . . which leads me nicely to a plug for something for the new week – Gasta Goes Global.

I’m not quite sure how this happened, well actually I am, Tom Farelly just asked me! So I am now one of seven others (and I’m not suffering from imposter syndrome being in this line up at all!!) who have agreed to do an online Gasta session to:

” draw people together in a show of togetherness and solidarity. #GastaGoesGlobal is about getting the community to imagine a new future in a spirit of fellowship, solidarity and yes, a bit of light-heartedness.” 

If you don’t know what a Gasta is then there is more information here – but 60 minutes, 7 speakers and 250 educators (and rising) just about sums it up.

If anyone can pull of MC’ing an online experience then I have no doubt that Tom can. I on the other hand, am equally excited and terrified about the whole thing and what I am actually going to say.  Another week of new experiences awaits. 

This week’s picture is the rainbow my niece made me to put on the window. Thank you too, dear reader, for being here just now.

Picture by my niece

Another week of online conferencing: week 2 of the lockdown diaries and a bit more #OER20

Photo by Essentialiving on Unsplash

I’m not sure if I have quite got used to the “new normal” of life just now. Only going out for a walk once a day is still hard, as is not being able to see loved ones. Book group reverted to the ubiquitous zoom – and I got as close as I have to COVID-19 as one of our group had symptoms and was going into proper lock down and self isolation. She is steadily getting better thanks goodness.

However, in work life things are a bit easier but a equally a bit different. The big event last week was the OER20 conference, which less than 3 weeks ago moved from face to face to online.  That was a huge, but ultimately the right, decision for ALT to make as I wrote about at the time.  All registered delegates got their conference fees refunded, with the option of making a donation to cover some of the cost of the conference.  At time of writing contributions stand at around £5.5k. This is amazing and will make a huge difference to ALT. As a member organisation, conferences are a really important source of income that help support its infrastructure.   With the registration fee dropped as well just everything else going on or not going on just now, there was a huge increase in registration numbers which topped about 1,200.  

I’ve already written my immediate thoughts from the conference, and I’m still reflecting and catching up on many of the sessions I missed. This morning I read and watched Alan Levine’s (aka @cogdog) presentation where he challenged the conventions of the f2f conference, asked how we could elevate and augment “the share” not only of knowledge but of deeper connections and perhaps close the divide between the “there and the there nots”.   It’s a huge challenge but I think OER might be pivotal moment in rethinking conferences in our sector. 

I think we may well all have to go into lock down at short notice several times over the coming year(s) so I suspect that every conference from now on will have to have some kind of augmented online option/channel. Not just a twitter back channel, but a really viable option to reposition/or just present online. This may involve developing a different/parallel submission process. That might open things up a bit more to the “there nots” and of course a bit more thought than this short paragraph!

What did impress me this during the OER conference was the the way that conventions were challenged and subverted. For example the keynote from Joe Deville and Janneke Adema where they played a recorded slide presentation. That meant they could be more “present’ in the chat and I think better prepared and already involved in the discussion their really provoking talk fostered.  

During the conference it also struck me how much less reliant the participants and presenters were on presenting themselves synchronously through video, and how vibrant the chat spaces were in all the live sessions I attended.   We don’t always need to “see” ourselves all the time.

I also really enjoyed the online conference space provided by Collaborate Ultra. It felt much calmer than the endless Zoom/MS Teams meetings I now find myself in.  Partly that is done to my own familiarity with it, but also it was down the sophistication of the users. OER participants want, and know how to use the chat space, and seem much more comfortable doing that than taking the virtual mike. Maybe that’s just a reflection of the f2f situation. It can be daunting to ask a question in any physical or digital room full of peers .

Last week I was in a networking event (held via Zoom) for a colleague who runs a coaching business.  I was really struck by the fact that no-one (apart from me) used the chat function. I don’t know if that was a down to people using zoom for the first time, and so not realising it was there. But I did really get the impression that this particular demographic (smart, small business owners in general) were much more confident in speaking to the camera.  It was also possibly due to the context, maybe a much more immediate, personal response was needed  rather than pondering questions.  Or maybe they just realised how zoom chats can be saved and accessed.  

One plus point about the current situation was that I was also able to attend the QAA Scotland Focus on Technology event as even thought there was a date clash with OER I could be at both conferences.  Along with Jason Miles-Campbell (Jisc, Scotland) I co-hosted an “ask the expert” session around digital and online learning and student engagement.  Lots of chat here – in a MS Teams space (is there a way to export chat session from Teams?).  For me, it was really useful to hear the reality of what colleagues in institutions are actually experiencing just now.  As we seem to be coming out of the first wave of the crazy mad, let’s get as much as we can online, I think last week a few people had a bit more time and space to put their heads above the parapet so to speak.  Lots of discussions around time and place and basic access and support.

I see something emerging around a realisation that maybe Zoom and it’s ilk are perhaps better used for immediate general support/scaffolding and maybe one to one small group activities, rather than as a lecture replacement.

We don’t always need to be seen to be engaged/present. We can subvert the use of video in live sessions, we can experience the power of collective viewing, integrate and remix the synchronous with the asynchronous, we can also combine the digital with the physical in quite unexpected and emotional ways. This was particularly true with the FemEdTech quilt session at OER.  The physical object was so present in the “digital’ space, and that digital space provided a tangible emotional response that I’m not sure could have be replicated in a f2f event. There would have been emotion there for sure, but I think it would have been of a different intensity. 

This week is back to the standard “new normal” work wise, who knows what it will bring in other ways.

My #OER20 bowl of soup

One of the main visual icons for the OER20 conference was a can of soup. It’s a really clever visual metaphor which encapsulates the theme of the conference – care in openness.

What could be more caring than a  lovingly made bowl of warming soup? Chicken soup for the soul etc.  However, the image of a can of soup also brings connotations of industrial scale production, commodification, mass consumption, our (global North)  throw away everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, disposable culture.  As conference co-chair Mia Zamora highlighted, the image of the can of soup neatly encapsulates many of the challenges around open education, and in particular care in education, research and related practice.

Now, I have to say I hadn’t really thought of soup in this way before.  To be honest, I’m not that keen on soup. This is in part due to a mini act of rebellion on my part when I was a child. My parents owned a farm and there was always a pot of soup (typically vegetable broth) on the Aga. The soup, along with countless other dishes, was regularly made with care by my Mum to feed the myriad of people that were working on the farm at various times or who just happened to pop in  – we had a very open kitchen policy!

Everyone loved that soup. So, I think that mini me must have decided that at some point that  just to be different I would not.  I don’t like what I call “bit soup” – so any soup that I can see the bits of veggies or whatever, is generally a no go area for me.  Lucky me to have had the privilege of having access to enough food to be a fussy eater. 

I did however, like one kind of soup – the No. 57 variety that came out of a can. To this day It’s still my favourite soup.  The conference has made me reflect on why that is. Why did I prefer a mass prepared, out of a can experience to the craft, homemade kind? A child’s craving for artificial flavours aside,  I realise it really didn’t have anything to do with the soup, but it had everything to do with care.

 I only ever really got “my soup” when I wasn’t well, when I really couldn’t or wouldn’t eat anything. Quite often it came with with a buttered soft, white roll alongside it. It was “made” with care by my Mum. A visible yet invisible act of love for a sick child, that never failed to bring comfort and in its own way, nourishment.  I still associate a can of tomato soup with a warm hug, with safe places, healing and comfort. There were a number of times when I was really quite ill as a child and tomato soup was always a signal of recovery. 

This seems to echo some of the conversations and experiences around open education, and indeed education in general.  It’s how we show care that really matters. It’s so easy just to “throw a can of soup” at someone, rather than open it (even show people how to open it), heat it up, put in a bowl, garnish, remix, extend and share and most importantly create a safe space to help people to do the same, to share their favourite soup too and, where needed allow people create their alternative to soup.

Over the past 2 days at the OER20 conference I have experienced that same feeling of a warm hug, that soup always brings to mind, many times over.  We are all living in a vary strange time with the COVID crisis. Moving the conference online was a risky, but necessary step which has exceeded all expectations. 

Over 1,000 registered for the event. All the live sessions were packed with people. The emotional connections were palpable. Watching videos like France’s Bells story of the making of the FemEdTech quilt of care and justice reduced everyone in the session to tears. Similarly, during sava saheli singh’s keynote collectively watching Frames made everyone reflect on surveillance, the current impact of social and physical distancing in ways that extended the original premise of the script in totally unforeseen ways.

The KaraOERoke was emotional too – but possibly at the other end of the scale. A great example of having fun whilst physically distancing but really socially connecting and having fun. We so need to ensure that we have fun – that’s a huge part of caring too.

I’m still digesting all my experiences of the conference, and I’m so glad there is an even richer set of OER resources to go back to. For now tho’, I think I am going to find a tin of tomato soup and be thankful for that open hug everyone in involved in the conference from the Co-Chairs and conference committee, to the presenters, the participants, and of course the amazing ALT core staff team who managed the online transition so smoothly, have given me.