The lockdown diaries week 10: beginnings of endings

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 38,376. One of the highest in the world.  I am still very angry about the whole Dominic Cummings lockdown rule breaking fiasco I alluded to last week.  

A week certainly is a long time in politics. Neither Cummings or the UK Prime Minister have had the decency to apologise for the quite extraordinary tales of lockdown breaches.  The level that the whole UK cabinet have gone to defend Cummings is quite extraordinary.

This article by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams  really summed up my frustration – particularly her description of “hysterical emotional response”. As she so succinctly put it:

“there is so much wrongdoing, so much plain nonsense, that we circle it endlessly, castigate it relentlessly, but we can’t see our way past the authority of those responsible, and can’t see any way of acting on our anger.”

Let’s hope it in the long term it will hurt them as much as their actions this week have dismayed and hurt the UK population.

This week saw the start of the  beginnings of easing of lockdown here in Scotland as we moved into Phase 1 of the Scottish Government’s roadmap. This means we can go out a bit more and, more importantly see friends and family outside, but still within our local areas. I’ll have to wait a bit longer to see my family as they don’t live locally. However, I’m willing do that as long as we can try to keep the spread of the virus under control.

I have already found being among more people, even in the supermarket or the park to be quite unsettling and anxiety inducing. There really is so much we don’t know about this virus and how it works, and what effect it will have on all our mental health in the longer term.

Meanwhile the we see more of the beginning of the end for casual staff in universities, whilst more attention is given to technological solutions to ensure the ‘new normal’ is as much like the ‘old normal’ as possible. This article of the student experience of online proctored exams I found quite terrifying. Yet I suspect that some of leaders who will cut staff will invest in software like this as “the solution”, instead of taking the opportunity to work with staff and students to develop forms of assessment that don’t require this level of privacy invasion, and that are much more authentic, caring and appropriate for our context.

Meanwhile my working week has been relatively online meeting free and I have been able to concentrate on reviews and writing for clients. My term as Chair of ALT is coming to an end, and I had one of my last catch ups with Maren Deepwell and Martin Hawksey to prepare for the (now online) AGM in June.  I’ll write more about that in separate post. Much as I have enjoyed being part of the leadership and governance of ALT, it is time for me to move on.

I also had a series of lovely catch ups with former and current work colleagues, including one with Mia Zamora. We had hoped to catch up during the OER conference but obviously with it going online that didn’t happen. So it was lovely to catch up and chat about a whole range of things. Once again I am so thankful for my PLN and the wonderful, inspiring, open and kind people in it. 

Until next week, dear reader, stay safe.

Mixed media, by Sheila MacNeill

The lockdown diaries week 9: the lecture is dead, long live the lecture

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK is now over 36,600. As lock down eases across the UK – roll on Thursday when restrictions lift a little here in Scotland – we find out that one man can flout the government guidance and rules without (so far) any consequences. 

As we come to end of mental health awareness week I just wonder how much additional stress finding out that a government aide can be excused for driving half way across England, whilst so many people have been unable to see family, have been unable to visit dying relatives, for the past 9 weeks has caused. I know it’s made me very angry. 

This week there was a bit of a furore around the announcement from Cambridge that it was putting all its lectures online.  The lecture is dead, long live the lecture . . .

In reality, the model that Cambridge uses with very small tutorial groups and lots of 1-2-1 tutorials will allow it to very probably return to some kind of normal far quicker than the majority of UK universities who are also putting lots of lectures online as part of their plans for the coming new academic year.  

There’s also a lot of other ’stuff’ going to be available for students too. Lectures aren’t the only way method of learning and teaching at university level, and haven’t been for quite some time.  However the entrenched myth of “proper” university education equating to rows of students in large lecture halls persists.

Now don’t get me wrong I do enjoy a “good” (and by that I mean engaging, interesting) lecture – but surely this is the time for the sector to be changing the discourse and dialogue around what university teaching is, will and can be.  As you know dear reader, I think we really need to be seriously looking at what the student experience is going to be and using that as the starting point to  reframe our planning.  That would naturally take the emphasis away from the lecture and allow us to work with students to come to more nuanced understandings of what the new student experience actually looks like.

We need to be thinking really carefully about how we make the synchronous time we have with students really worthwhile. I think team approaches could work well here and again that would move away from the “traditional” lecture format to something that could be much more active, and hopefully more engaging for students.  This could also provide much needed opportunities for students to meet for example in smaller break out groups to discuss key issues, and then share back with a larger group.  That’s hard to do on your own but with a 2 or 3 staff it’s much more feasible, and less daunting. We also shouldn’t forget the power of audio.  As most of us hate looking at ourselves, short audio recordings/podcasts are a great lecture recording alternative too.  I will no doubt come back to all  this in a dedicated post.

Until next week, dear reader, stay safe and I’ll leave you with another little bit of covid-19 walks along the canal inspired artwork.

Original artwork by Sheila MacNeill, mixed media on paper

The Lockdown diaries week 8: a bit of a mini break and some service design

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK is now over 33,600. Well, when I say another week of lock down, it has been here in Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland), but not in England where some restrictions have been lifted.

Last week I, along with millions of others watched the UK Prime Minister give what can only be described as confusing address to the nation. In his haste to give give some “good news” he seemed to forget that the measures he was describing only applied to England and not the rest of the “great nation” he claims to love so much.  

The confusion, derision this statement caused compares so starkly with other countries such as New Zealand who not only have keep their death toll and infection rates low, but have also manage to provide clear, consistent messaging to their citizens and even more excitingly have allowed hairdressers to re-open.  The clumsiness of the change of messaging to “stay alert” has exposed the rising challenges within our political system around the importance of people over profit. We all need to “get back to work” and stop enjoy this self enforced holiday!

This week I had a bit of a break, not quite a holiday, but I did enjoy a few email and twitter free days. At the start of this year I promised myself I would be better at taking “proper” holidays. When you work for yourself, there is a temptation to work as much as you can and never be too far from your email, just in case something pops up.  I was a good decision and I feel much better for it.  I even managed to get a bit of painting done.  This is my reaction to the tracking app I wrote about 2 weeks ago.  The beauty of the tulip representing the apparent beautiful ease and simplicity of using an app to track and trace people, without enough attention being applied to the wider implications of data gathering and civil liberties.  

Track, trace, tulip, acrylic on canvas, Sheila MacNeill, 2020

So my week of online conferences were pretty much all social.   Apart from Friday morning when I joined the Service Design in Education webinar.

 I have an awareness of service design from a quite a few years ago when I was at CETIS and we were staring to look at learning analytics.  I wrote a couple of briefing papers with Jean Mutton (who at that point was working at the University of Derby) and her developing use of service design approaches.  It was lovey to catch up with Jean again too on Friday. 

There is now an emerging service design community across the education sector, and it was really interesting to get an overview of some of the work that is being done, Katie Murrie and the team at the Service Design Academy in Dundee and August college have been doing some really fabulous work across all education sectors through service design approaches.  I need to find out more about the differences an similarities between service design and universal design at some point too.  I think my natural instincts for educational/learning design is a mish-mash of both!

I have to say it was also a really well designed and delivered session which added to the overall high levels of engagement from all the delegates – design really does matter! It was the first time I have actually been in a zoom session using breakout rooms and that all worked well.  I’m certainly going to keep an eye on developments in this community.  You can find out more about the emerging community here.

During the week I became even more convinced that we need to be using the term physical distancing more than social distancing. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but just now I think it’s really not getting through to people that the physical distance between us is really important. Wearing a mask doesn’t mean  you can ignore that 2 meter guidance.  But I know it’s hard.  

Like everyone I miss people, I really do.  So when I heard an interview with the wonderful Benjamin Zephaniah, this poem really resonated with what we are experiencing right now. So I’ll leave you with this version of it, dear reader. Until next week stay safe. 

The Lockdown Diaries: week 7, revenge of the tech gremlins, fatigue and care

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK is now over 31,000. This weekend we marked 75 years since VE day and the start of the end of the second world war.  Over the 5 years of that war,  around 60,000 civilians died in the UK. We are over half way towards that number in 3 months.

The reality of our current situation seems to be in a slow state of flux. I see more people outside, in bigger groups, not always physically distancing. The wearing of a mask seems to give some the feeling of invincibility and the right to cut in front of others in the supermarket. But as I keep reminding myself I am one of the lucky ones. I am still working, I am still getting paid.   
This week was taken up with the new normal of online conferences. Along with my good friend and inspirational colleague Sue Beckingham I gave a keynote for one of a series of webinars GMIT  are hosting to replace their traditional learning and teaching week.  

The platform we used was MS Teams, and wouldn’t you know it, despite testing just before the session started, both Sue and I had problems getting our presentations to load. I had hoped to ad a bit of interactivity but had to drop presenting live via mentimeter as I could access my browser from teams.  My internet connection also dropped out so I had to quickly switch to using my mobile phone hotspot. The copy of the slides I had emailed got stuck in my outbox because my connection went down, but I did eventually manage to upload them. The reality of the new normal in action. . . When telling my niece about my tech traumas she just replied in the world-weary, we’re using Teams for school just now, average 13 year old tone “yeah, that happens all the time with Teams” . . .

Despite the gremlins the talk seemed to go down well. I really wanted to move away from taking about “online” and the glib ”online pivot” to start thinking more about participation and what that is, and is going to be for our students and staff in the coming year.   You can read more here.   One of the things I’ve been highlighting in the last couple of talks I’ve given is the need for recognition of what our staff have already done, and that they there needs to be a lot more thought about the practicalities of delivery design for the new academic year. 

Again, I am lucky I have a home office, I have a well set “background” for my online interactions. I’ve been having lots of video calls with colleagues who are working from home and the mix of backgrounds (bedrooms, garages, kitchens ) is totally normal and helps to give me an idea of what their current context is. Cats, small children, not so small children all part and parcel of that.

I was really shocked by this post from Kate Bowles about “background” and the “helpful” video her institution had sent staff about backgrounds in videos when teaching.  

This type of approach is not helpful and really doesn’t make any allowances for the circumstances that we are all living and working in.  Where is the sense of care and understanding in this type of “help”?  Surely given the stresses of lockdown for everyone, allowing your students to see that you are human and you are working in the same kind of circumstances as them (at home, with others around) is more important than ever.

Playing with various backgrounds in systems such as zoom and teams can provide a bit of light relief. Well, it has for me, and yes, dear reader I did laugh out loud at the balloons background in teams! My laptop is too old to be able to add virtual backgrounds in zoom. We all know when something is fake. Right now, the last thing that any educational interaction can be is fake. We have to acknowledge the reality of our current context.  

Until institutions provided staff with the equipment and space to work at home with their approved background, I don’t see how they can even think about tell people what background they should be presenting. What we need to foreground right now is care. Care around the development and recognition the professional skills in designing and delivering appropriate activities and interactions with and for our students. Care for our exhausted workforce who have gone above and beyond in the past few months. Care for the a future where we acknowledge the current societal context we are living in and don’t try to present a fake veneer of some skewed notion of what “professional” education should be.

As ever, I hope you and yours stay safe and well.

My background right now

The Participation Pivot

In this post I’m going to try and encapsulate some of my thoughts around what is happening just now in terms of tertiary education, the impact of #lockdown and the apparently all consuming online pivot. This post will hopefully augment and complement a webinar keynote I gave on 6th May for GMIT and their DigitalEd Discovery Series. Many thanks to Carina McGinty for inviting me and allowing me to share a virtual platform with the wonderful Sue Beckingham.

Some of these ideas come from conversations I’ve been having with colleagues across the sector and special thanks to Simon Horrocks, Kerr Gardiner and Louise Drumm for the conversations we’ve had recently.

When I hear or read the words online pivot, I can’t help but think of the Friends episode where “the gang’ are trying to move a sofa up a flight of stairs. Of course, all sorts of hilarity ensues as they try and turn a corner, leading to Ross yelling “pivot”, and  no-one actually knowing where they have to pivot to.  I think it ends with most of the gang walking away and leaving Ross and the sofa. I don’t think we ever really find out just how the sofa actually ends up in Ross’s apartment -but as this is just a TV show it doesn’t really matter. If it were real life, the sofa would either have got damaged/broken or Ross would have maybe hired some professional movers to get the job done.

But back to our current online pivot. I think that this episode or meme does help us think through some of the big questions around the so call online pivot in education.  Crucially in terms of these questions: what is it that is being pivoted? Is it the curriculum, the institution? Our learning environments, our approaches to teaching and assessment? Our learning spaces?  And,  who is being pivoted? Our teaching staff?  Our support staff? Our senior management? our students? Our communities? And does everyone know what their role is in this pivot? Or are they just hearing (seeing) someone constantly yelling “PIVOT” and not being actually sure of where they  (or how) they are supposed to be pivoting they just end up walking away or in our cases not applying to uni/college this year or ever.

If all of the above are being pivoted then there needs to be some really consistent, clearly understood, accessible, inclusive, instructions for the start of the new “old” academic year for all students and staff. Although “the pivot” got the sector through the initial chaos of #lockdown,  that just in time approach isn’t sustainable.

There a number of models out there. This article in Inside Higher Ed presents 15. These are very much based on the American model so a couple of them aren’t really that viable in Ireland and the UK. This article from Laura Czerniewicz also provides an very thoughtful, accessible overview of some of the wider pressures on the sector right now.

I’ve also been discussing various options with colleagues that I’m working with, as well as keeping half an eye on other things that people are sharing but it does seem to me that there is something missing, or perhaps just a bit too hidden, in the current discourse, particularly around our students. The pivot does seem to have been done to them and not with them. This is where why I think we need to start thinking more the about “the pivot” in terms of students.

Already we have 10s of thousands of our current students whose “student experience” has been totally disrupted. Exams in some cases have been cancelled, changed to perhaps open book exams which could be a very different experience, particularly when all submission is online. Access to stable wifi, labs, laptops,  quiet and collaborative spaces on-campus has been abruptly ended, with no clear indication of when or if that will resume. 

Whilst the vast majority of students do have some kind of mobile phone, they don’t all have access to their own laptops at home and with the wider context of lockdown they may very well be negotiating use of a family computer with multiple others – all of whom will have their own priorities. The what and how of student engagement is fundamentally changing and any model we adopt for future delivery has to be cognisant of that.

This week in the UK there has been raft of commentary in the media around the injustice of students in England being charged full fees, but not getting an “real” aka face to face teaching. Of course this highlights a general lack of understanding of what online learning is and the very real role of the teacher and wider development teams in successful online learning.  That urban myth of online being second best is something that needs to busted – that conception that “good” tertiary education is exemplified by the lecture at the front of a large lecture theatre really does need to change, and we all have a role to play in doing that.

So I am  proposing that one way to do that would be to develop some extended discourse around participation. Let’s talk stop talking about the as much about the online pivot and start talking about the participation pivot.

Let’s look at participation and what that means for our students and staff and see if we can use what is happening just now to gain back some time and breathing space for everyone. To do this, I think we really need to be starting by revisiting the notion of the student experience. It’s not going to be what it was for quite some time. The social aspect of college/university is gone for at least the rest of this year if not longer.

This is my starter for 10 on developing a model that allows us to work with students and allows our current context to be a key driver for our curriculum development.

revisiting the student experience

For a starting point I’m suggesting we need to really look at the 1st year experience.  We have a large group of young adults whose lives have been turned upside down. I’m sure many of you are living with that right now. Their exams have been cancelled, they’re dealing with “unusual” marking of class work to get their grades, the whole end of school rites of passage things have been cancelled – not trips away, no house parties, no opportunities to really become yourself, which is key aspect of growing up.

The research from about a decade ago now around the first year experience was about keeping students in first year. Just now it is more about getting students into first year. Why would you go to uni this year when things are so unsettled, you haven’t been able to complete the exams you thought you would ,when you might have to do that “online learning” and all the additional challenges that brings.

So we really need to have a major rethink about induction.  It can’t be just one packed week of online webinars just showing how systems work, there’s not going to be a huge queue of students trying to get their library card, but we need to make sure that there getting user names and passwords is really easy and support is in place for that. 

I think the whole induction notion needs to be extended into a wider change of focus take a more integrated long thin approach rather than the short fat model we are used to. I see this a part of a wider flipping of the curriculum and rethinking of digital and physical spaces and how, when and who interacts in them. 

We need to start redefining and articulating what engagement looks like/is for between staff and students, between students and students and between staff and staff – research, teaching, support, management – everyone. For this to really happen I think there needs to be a refocus away initially for subject/discipline content to the development of digital capabilities. Of course there could a discipline focus here but really I think going back to induction the first term/semester should really be about getting students (and staff) comfortable and familiar with institutionally provided learning and teaching technology and their own “new” learning spaces.  

There is a huge co-production opportunity here to work with students and getting their active input into how and when activities are best delivered.  This could be done through a range of activities that focused on the reality of life for us all just now.

COVID 19 relates to every discipline, and every aspect of our life. We could use this time to develop critical thinking and research skills. Looking to critical pedagogy we could encourage our students (and staff)  to critically engage with the current context of our society and education right now. What about some kind of communal, inter-disciplinary digital research methods module for 1st years? Encourage the development of data literacy skills in the context of the daily government briefings, to ensure students know how to interpret data and question and critique how data is presented to the public. In this scenario, 

Library staff could be far better integrated into course/module development and delivery along with other support service staff.  Get students to develop their digital scholarship capabilities much earlier, and encourage them to develop digital stories using a range of media, and really develop more reflective approaches to learning and assessment. 

Also going back to physical spaces, there are going to be challenges in any return to campus, and use of our spaces in relation to social distancing. There may be opportunities for sharing of space between universities, but I think that there might be an opportunity for universities/colleges to work with the community a bit more here too and students should have a role in this too.

Our campuses are technology rich spaces with wifi (and a superfast network that isn’t being used to capacity right now). Given the inequalities that are being so clearly highlighted just now and the ever increasing reliance on digital interactions for every type of service, would it be possible to open some of our spaces to the community (with safe social distancing measures of course). I ca see some great student project opportunities here . . .working across disciplines, across years . . .

What about some of the huge ethical challenges we are facing around contact tracing and the using mobile apps or fast tracking vaccination research and human testing? I know I feel a sense of powerlessness around these issues and to be honest at times  I feel just  too overwhelmed,  tired and scared to explore and critique more. But that’s what education is for. We need to be providing opportunities for our students to gain a sense of agency around these issues and the world we are all living in right now. To investigate, research, perhaps be part of research teams, to question to critique to develop alternative approaches,  that kind of “real world” learning that in anytime is crucial.  Let’s explore and develop our design approaches with our students and really learn together about what does and doesn’t work in terms of meaningful participation and engagement.

In terms of evaluation, our current module evaluation questions could now be next to useless. So why don’t we use students to actively evaluate the tech we are using? Work out together the affordances of each and combine with data/analytics, think about time online – how long do students want to be in live lecture? The balance of sync/async activities. We’re all experiencing zoom fatigue now so lets ensure the education sector is leading in developing and sharing best practice for new ways of working. Let our students go to employers with really effective, innovative was of working and communication effectively online and offline.

Taking this approach of course wouldn’t be comfortable or easy. But we can’t go back to business as usual – everything has fundamental changed. Why are we trying to replicate a system that is no long fit for purpose? 

However what it might do would be to give us the time to develop a more nuanced understanding of what the student experience is now.  Critique, evaluate that with our students, come to common, shared understandings  of what participation means now, and how to  ensure that we are supporting delivery relevant educational experiences to  what could very well be a lost generation. Allowing them to be as  fully equipped in terms of digital capabilities, reflective and critical thinking skills as they can be so that they can take the lead in how their society/ies develop in the (hopefully) post covid-19 world.

The lockdown diaries: week 6

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK has jumped to over 28,000, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of slow down.  One man’s recovery can not make up for the needless loss of thousands of lives.   Everyone seems anxious for some kind easing of restrictions.

We are promised a menu of options next week . . .a tracing app is being piloted . . . this worries me almost as much as the virus. Our NHS and government don’t have a great track record of implementing any kind of large scale IT project, it will be anonymous they say but what data will it need? Where will it be stored? How long for? What handy things could it be “easily” extended to?What about the deprived communities where the virus hits hardest – how will it work there?   

Speaking to a friend of my who lives in Cyprus earlier this week (this weeks zoom drinks party) she couldn’t  believe why the UK population wasn’t rioting at what was happening.  Perhaps because there are too many people like me – worried, but ultimately comfortable in our safe, lock down houses with food, money and data aplenty.   However, watching Googlebox is I think the best way to get an accurate sense of the sense of the nation. I hope some of the No. 10 advisors were watching to see and hear the consistency of dismay across UK households at the speech the Prime Minister gave outside Number 10 on his return to work on Monday. 

Meanwhile, back in my world of work it’s been less zoom-tastic. This week has been the week of MS Teams and just for a frisson of excitement a web-ex call. I also watched a comedy fund raiser on zoom. That was weird, comedians in their houses, a selected “front row” who could be seen and heard . . . not sure that really worked, but hopefully it raised some money. 

On Monday I facilitated a session for CDN (College Development Scotland) as part of their Leadership and Development Series.  Originally planned as a face to face workshop, it moved online to zoom, then to Teams. The session worked well I think.   The planning for the session did encapsulate what is happening in terms of delivering anything just now.

timeline of event image

I had hoped to use the group function in zoom to get a bit more collaboration but of course couldn’t do that in Teams so I just used mentimeter to get a bit of interaction and participation. Originally the session was about the potential and impact of technology for 2030, however given the current circumstances, I changed the focus more on what people are currently dealing with and what they are learning just now. That seemed to work and there was a good level of participating in the chat and also from people willing to speak on camera. This particular group were quite experienced Teams users (there were a nice range of backgrounds on display to prove that!), so I think that helped too.  

I don’t think we can plan for the future without evaluating and learning from what is happening right now.  Stable internet access for students is a top priority – particularly in more rural areas of Scotland.  As are questions of location and space. Personal, mobile learning “on the bus/train” aren’t really an option just now. How many people are trying to get online at home? Do students have any quiet/sharing/safe spaces no campuses are closed?  You can get a flavour of the session from the slides below.

This week coming I should have been in Galway at the GMIT Learning and Teaching conference, but you guessed it I will be there virtually instead.  Do you remember dear reader, back in the day I used to write posts titled “where Sheila’s been this week” – could easily now update that to “where Sheila’s not been this week”  . ..  so lots of thinking just now about what the online pivot actually means. In the meantime, stay safe and well.