The lock down diaries week 14: endings and shoots of new beginnings

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 43,514, keeping the UK firmly in the top 3 highest death tolls in the world.  I take some small comfort that the death rate in Scotland is steadily lowering. We’ve had no days for several days now. It is all so fragile and temporary.  

The moves the ease lock down continue, and whilst I am stupidly happy about the announcement that hairdressers in Scotland can open from 15th July, the crowds on beaches, the police closing parks very close to where I live do worry me.  

How can we move out of lockdown and not raise infection and death rates? Local lockdowns are already on the way.  Perhaps there is just an overwhelming denial that getting back to any sense of “normal” is ever going to happen.  However, I guess we can’t all stay on lock down forever so we have to try to tentatively sow some shoots of movement and dealing with the realities of physical distancing at scale.

Meanwhile, back in my little bubble the past week has included a bit of a milestone.  The first part of the week was very ALT focused with the ALT Scotland annual (online) gathering on Monday. Around 70 colleagues from across all sectors of Scottish education joined the meeting. Once again it was so inspiring to see the amount of sharing of practice and ideas across the sector.  

Then on Wednesday there was the AGM, again online – but actually this might be a more effective way to run the AGMs.  Huge congratulations to Teresa McKinnon who received an Honorary Lifetime Membership Award during the meeting. Teresa in my mind really is the embodiment of ALT.  And of course the AGM brought my term as Chair of the Association to end (more about how I feel about this here).  I was really touched by the digital crest that I was presented with too.

I’ll still be an active member of the ALT community, and of course have a bit more time for other things – like my consultancy – so if you need and support with online/digital learning just drop me a line!  

So far this year work has been fine for me but what will happen in the next 6 months who knows.  It was good to read Phil Barker’s post where he celebrates 3 years of the consultancy life and a great summary of what is happening just now in the HE sector .  Hopefully I’ll still be here in another 2 years. 

Sherri Spelic wrote a really powerful post earlier in the week about history. How easy it is to avoid, but how it won’t hide and eventually we all need to embrace it, and understand our place in it.  I read that on Monday, Windrush Day, a day to celebrate people from the Caribbean who were invited to the UK in the 1950s.  There is still a shameful legacy of how many of these people have been treated by the UK state, of how the recommendations from the official enquiry are still to be implemented.

This is all part of my history, my present, my future. Reading White Fragility is helping me to make sense of my inner conflicts around this.  I was brought up in a very small, very white community on the west coast of Scotland. Different races were few and far between. Racism was however hidden in plain sight everywhere. Embraced in the normality of language and knowing looks around “them” and “people like that”.  

I did find out this week that I do have an ancestor who went to America and was hung for freeing slaves. How he ended up in a position to own let alone free slaves I need to find out more about – this may well be a family myth. 

We are of course living through a really significant period of history. Despite the multiple opportunities for multiple narratives to be created and shared, there are still dominant narratives, particularly around education that need to be addressed notleast around the role of technology and technology providers.

Anne-Marie Scott has written an excellent post on some of the recent “discussions” around online proctoring and the need for academic integrity. Whilst universities are dealing with the financial impact of COVID-19, and many colleagues are rightly worried about their jobs, there is still money to be made in education. There is a huge amount of data waiting to be mined and exploited. Just think how much data Zoom now has about the education sector, and actually all of us.  

With reduced funding from central government more attention needs to be focused on the tech companies and funders who are all going provide solutions for “the future”.  Angel investors are ready to swoop – it’s interesting to see this partnership. I have a feeling that ed-tech and investment companies’ “new normal” is much the same as their “old normal”, And, of course that is always about the money, not of fundamentally changing access and equity to education – ultimately that doesn’t pay. 

Until next week, dear read, stay safe. 

The lockdown diaries week 13: the stress of next steps

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 42,589. The death and infection rates are slowly decreasing but they are still very high. Like many others I worry about:  a second spike, people taking more risks with travel (still can’t understand why anyone would want to go on a plane on holiday just now), with seeing others in groups, people not quite getting the importance of the physical distance part of social distancing, people behaving like the virus has gone away instead of realising that we are only now getting back to somewhere near the levels of infection and people in ICUs as we were at the start of lockdown.  This article in the Guardian earlier this week summed up a lot of my concerns. 

That said, this past week has been a much better week for me personally than the previous one. I’ve felt more focused and almost positive.  I got a lovely gift from ALT on Monday morning to mark my time as Chair, so that did help to get the week off to a good start.

the gifts from ALT

The weather has been lovely and I got to see my sister and niece face to face for the first time in 3 months. That afternoon in their garden, though so similar to many others we have spent there, was really special.  

On Monday afternoon I took part in a really enjoyable panel session in the OU’s CARLG conference with Amber Thomas, Dave Cormier, Dave White and Roger Emery, chaired by Mark Childs.  The overall theme of the session was based on a post Roger shared originally on LinkedIn but which crossed over to twitter and, then ended up as session at the conference.

It was timely to discuss not only acknowledgement of themes such as presence, connectedness, eventedness, facilitation and activities/content in the context of what has happened over the past few months and how people are planning for the new academic sessions.

Presence is so important in any teaching and learning situation – not just for the teacher but also for the students.  How we facilitate and nurture student online presence is going to be of increasing importance over the coming months.

John Casey shared this short recording “the end of university as we know it?  from Professor Mary Beards on the ALT list over the weekend. In the podcast she shares her thoughts on the future of universities, and in particularly her sadness over the loss of the physical lecture.  There’s quite a discussion on the ALT list about it just now. To me it is the physical presence of her students that she is really missing and she doesn’t quite know how to get any sort equivalence during an online session.  

She describes the lecture as being a conversation, and the importance of eye contact – all of which I agree with. However it is possible to have a conversation online too. We need to help our colleagues find ways other than eye contact and scanning “the room” to get a sense of engagement and presence of their students -which I think we covered in the panel session on Monday. She also makes some really sensible points about assessments and exams and not have piles of hand written exam scripts on her kitchen table just now – it’s worth taking 10 minutes to listen to.

This week coming is quite ALT focused with the ALT Scotland meet up on Monday and the AGM on Wednesday when my time as Chair ends. I think next week will be another up and down one!  Until then, dear reader, stay safe and well. 

Open leadership: legacy and succession and a farewell to my time as #altc Chair

This is my final contribution to this series of posts where I have tried to share some of what I consider to be the key aspects of leadership in my role as Chair of ALT. You can read the other posts, here, here here and here.

My tenure of Chair comes to an end at the AGM on 24th June. This is slightly earlier that I had anticipated at the beginning of this year. Normally our AGMs occur during our annual conference in September, but of course due to the current global pandemic we have had to cancel all our face to face events for the rest of this year.  Moving the AGM online and to an early date is another in a series of rapid changes ALT has had to adopt over the past few months.

However, this move could actually set another precedent for the AGM as it might actually make more sense to keep it decoupled from any conference/event, and run it online. We are hoping that it might actually be easier for more of our members to join online. And of course the AGM is open to all – not just our members.

When Martin Weller ( current President) and I wrote this blog post as part of the recruitment for the new Chair, we could never have anticipated the enormous changes the world has gone through in the last few months. However, as I say in our annual report which will formally be presented at the AGM,  ALT has managed to negotiate these unprecedented times in, what I consider, a positive and agile way.  I would love to say that this was all down to me and my leadership – but of course it’s not just down to me 😉  Our CEO Maren and our CIO Martin as well as all the core ALT staff have risen to the challenge of almost completely rewriting work plans and adapting core business in response the changing times.

One, if not the, key reasons they were able to do that successfully was due to the changes the organisation has gone through over the past three years. When I took over as Chair, ALT was in the process of changing its charitable status, its governance structure ( I am the first Chair to serve a 3 year, as opposed to 1 year term), and crucially becoming an independent, virtual, distributed organisation.   ALT staff didn’t have to pivot to online – they were already there.  No zoom revolution needed.  The speed of decision making over the past three months has been rapid to say the least.  

Our governance structures have allowed us to react in a timely, yet considered manner. Ensuring that the interests of our community are continued to be served and our finances are still in a positive position.  That is no mean feat. The commitment of all our Trustees who have attended extra meetings in the midst of their own challenging and changing contexts has allowed us to ensure the stability of the Association and support our core staff. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to lead and work with all the Trustees during my time as Chair.

It has also been a pleasure and a privilege to work with all the ALT core staff – not just over the past three years but over the six years I have been on the Board.  Maren and Martin are of course the faces most members know (and love), but they are supported by Jane, Fiona, Debbie, Emma Jane and Jane (currently on maternity leave). They really are a great team.  One of the things I was really keen to during my time as Chair was to connect the Board and the staff more, so there wasn’t a such a gulf between “the Board” and “the staff”. As I see it, we are all part of the core team and I have particularly enjoyed joining team meetings.  Once again I want to thank all the ALT staff I have worked with over the past three years.

It’s hard, actually almost impossible, to pick  highlights from the past three years, there have been so many. But the 2018 Annual conference which marked the 25th anniversary of the Association was special as I was one of the co-chairs and we took the opportunity to focus in on ALT itself a bit more. However, every ALT conference is special each one holds a special place for me.  I remember going to my first ALT conference (a long, long time ago now);  it never crossed my mind that I would ever be on a stage as a co-chair of an ALT  conference or indeed be the Chair of the  Association – just shows you kids – dreams can come true!  Over the past few years, being able to present new CMALT holders with their certificates at the conference has also been a highlight. It’s great to see so many people taking the time to get professional recognition for their work and of course, become part of the CMALT community as well as the wider ALT community too. 

The ALT values are very dear to me, particularly community. ALT is, and always has, been more than the sum of its parts. If I leave any legacy I would like it to be that clear focus community. Without our community we are nothing. If it’s not clear how what we do serves our community we shouldn’t be doing it.  Of course sustaining and growing a community is a constant challenge – particularly when you have a such a diverse membership as we do in  ALT.  

However, our steadily growing membership over the past 3 years is testament to our focus on supporting the needs of our community by the work of our core ALT team, and of course all voluntary work the members who run and contribute to our range of special interest groups ALT supports.  

Over the past 3 years I believe our communication about what we do continues to  improve.  The launch of the 2017 – 2020  Impact Report earlier this year was a particularly highlight for me as I believe it so clearly illustrated the huge range of work ALT has supported over the past 3 years, and the robustness of our last strategy. I hope this is the first of many such reports.

Although we have a diverse community in the sense of the range of job descriptions our members hold, we of course can do much more to support wider diversity and equality. We are making inroads, but there is a still  a way to go.  I am acutely aware of how our membership reflects the imbalance of ethnicity and gender that is prevalent across the UK eduction sector – particularly HE. I believe that ALT community is an inclusive one, and has a place for everyone involved in promoting the use and impact of learning technology. I also know that it is easy for me to say that from my position of white privilege. That said,  I do believe that the work ALT does to support open education, research and reflective professional development does provide multiple platforms for our community to critically reflect on its context and, help to promote and support increasing diversity and inclusion. If there is more we can do or a different way we can do things, then there is an open door to anyone with ideas.

So as I end my time as Chair, I am very optimistic about the future of ALT. The sense of community has shone through over the past few months, with so many resources and so much advice being shared openly. We were able to rapidly provide spaces for much needed community support in a time of confusion and crisis for all.

So whilst I’m obviously a bit sad about leaving the role which has been such a large part of my life for the past 3 years I do feel it is a good time for me to hand over to someone else.  I have no doubt that the incoming Chair, Helen O’Sullivan will be able to lead the Association and bring so much of her experience and knowledge to the role as ALT implements its new new strategy.  I know Helen is committed to our community and all of our core values, and will be supported by a very able Board.

A key part of leadership is knowing when to move on, and feeling confident about doing that – which I do. Of course I won’t be disappearing completely, I will still be an active member of the ALT community – particularly,  as part of the ALT Scotland team, and as a CMALT assessor.  

I have always felt a huge sense of privilege and gratitude to the ALT community, firstly for voting me onto the Board and then for supporting my nomination as Chair. I hope over the last three years, that trust in me and my leadership has been fulfilled. It’s been an amazing experience. To paraphrase the words of Benny and Bjorn; I’m nothing special, but leading ALT has been one of the most special and rewarding experiences of my professional life. So thank you for the music ALT, and so, so much more. 


The lockdown diaries week 12: the hardest week yet

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 41,662.  The numbers are slowly decreasing but the UK is still in the top three highest death tolls in the world.

We are still very far away from it “all being over”.  I hope our politicians are looking to  New Zealand as an example of how to manage a pandemic.  but I very much doubt that they are. We’re not out of this outbreak, and already there is talk of the second wave. I really hope that there isn’t one, but fear that there will be as economic drivers always outweigh everything else I strongly suspect there will be. 

I really struggled this week.  It was the first week since lock down that I hadn’t had any work related meetings, but I just couldn’t settle to anything else. Perhaps my malaise was just a natural reaction to “the situation”.  We seem so close to being able to do a bit more, see more people, but still so far away from it.  Perhaps my feelings of helplessness were increased by the attempt to overshadow the black lives matter movement with neoliberal ideologies and distractions and a nagging feeling of “what can I do?” The increasing attempts by politicians  to obfuscate civil and civic rights with law and order, the global pandemic and the need to “be alert” and “stay safe”.  And then I read this piece by Henry Giroux.  He writes:

Neoliberalism is not only an economic system, it is also an ideological apparatus that relentlessly attempts to structure consciousness, values, desires and modes of identification in ways that align individuals with its governing structures. Central to this pedagogical project is the attempt to prevent individuals from translating private issues and troubles into broader systemic considerations. By doing this, it becomes difficult for individuals to grasp the historical, social, economic and political forces at work in shaping a social order as a human activity deeply immersed in specific relations of power.

Reducing individuals to isolated, discrete, hermetically sealed human beings whose lives are shaped only by notions of self-reliance and self-sufficiency is a pedagogical strategy that utterly depoliticizes people leading them to believe that however a society is shaped, it is part of a natural order.

In our rush to get back to the “new normal” the need for critical pedagogy is more important than ever. We need to be able to critique our contexts, to not divert back to technology providing the answers to our new problems (or are they opportunities) in education.  To that end Sean Michael Morris’s piece “technology is not pedagogy” is worth reading.   A good contrast to this Microsoft’s position paper on re-imagining the future of education. Amazing what they are so convinced they know about after only a couple of months  . . .  I’m also still working my way through Ben Williamson’s UCU Scotland Report “ The Automatic University:  a review of datafication and automation in universities.” 

We need to arm ourselves and our students to be able to critique and question, to not just take a piece meal approach to decolonizing the curriculum, but use this time to explore our history. To have an informed debate about the role and location of statues, the gender and racial inequalities they perpetuate, the value system they represent.  These issues are fundamental to our future, to our “new normal”.   

Anyway, I hope this week coming will be better. I am feeling more positive again so that is good. In the meantime, dear reader, stay safe.  

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spotted on one of my walks this week

The lockdown diaries week 11:, #blacklivesmatter, doomscrolling and a bit of panic-ogy

Another week of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 40,465. Whilst the UK keeps near the top of  the world COVID death charts, chatter around holidays, and air bridges filled the airwaves this week. Why any country would allow people from the UK into their countries right now is beyond me. Why anyone from the UK would want to go on holiday to another country and risk taking COVID-19 there is also beyond me. Meanwhile the slow easing of lockdown continues. MacDonald’s drive throughs opened,  many traffic jams ensued. Is this really our new normal?

Of course this week has been dominated by #blacklivesmatter and the growing protests around the murder of George Floyd.  The global pandemic has done much to highlight existing inequalities in society. We can’t carry on like this.  Like so many I am haunted by the words “I can’t breathe”. Though I didn’t think it was possible, I have been even more shocked by President Trumps reaction to the groundswell of rage and (largely peaceful on the side of the protestors) protests.

I hadn’t heard the term “elite panic” before but goodness me it made so much sense to me this week. Of course what is happening in the USA has resonated here in the UK.  The history of black oppression in both countries is intrinsically linked. The “power and glory” of many white men rested on the oppression and death of millions of slaves.  Glasgow, the city where I live, was built on the profits of the slave trade. Many of the main streets in the city centre are named after men who made their fortunes from the slave trade.

One part of the current protests has been highlight an ongoing campaign to rename them.  Would that make a difference? Just highlighting the connection is a start. I know the renaming of a Glasgow city centre square from St George’s Place  to Nelson Mandela Place in the 1980s  raised awareness of the apartheid regime in South Africa.  Like so many things, education is key to changing society.

People need to understand history and how the current context is intertwined through our shared past. And how history is written and shared – mainly through the lens of the victors.  As a white middle class woman I know I need to  examine my privilege, the everyday things I take for granted, that others still have to struggle for.  We all need to rally against the elite panic, that tries to stop protest under the seemingly logical guise of public health.

However there have been some other things that have attracted my attention this week.  I really enjoyed the QAA Scotland Enhancement Themes conference. Some great keynotes and sessions and the recordings are available from the website.  Sally Kift’s keynote amongst other things introduced me to “panic-ogy” to describe what has actually happened in HE over the past couple of months. I really enjoyed her call for education to be leading the discussion around what happens in our sector. Her call for universities to be resetting their social contract with their communities really resonated with much of my work and thinking.

 One of the highlights of the conference was the day 2 student panel on “student engagement in a time of crisis”. It was really heartening to hear how much they felt they had, and are, involved in the move to remote teaching and the plans for the coming academic year.  It was also interesting to hear what they felt had worked well in the move to online delivery.  

Flexibility was a common theme, as was the importance communication and the need for multiple spaces for community building.  It was also highlighted that many students have had a really positive experience of open book exams (which kind of resonated with this piece on the University of Edinburgh’s teaching matters blog later in the week).  There was also agreement that students were “tired of lectures” and really wanted more active learning experiences – both on campus and online.    

But how do you teach in physical distanced spaces? Nic Whitton (Durham University) has set up a google doc to crowd source some ideas around this. How we teach, how we think about the use of spaces (both physical and digital), how can we develop timetables to reflect more active learning in multiple physical and digital spaces, are all key issues now. 

I found this week hard on many levels, from the big societal issues to the personal, mundane ones. But, as much society and some people dismay me, others give me hope. So thank you to everyone who I spoke to this week who helped to cheer me up and to those who are raising the big questions.  In the meantime, dear reader, stay safe.