A practical guide to digital teaching and learning

Earlier this summer I was delighted to be asked to contribute to a special feature by Times Higher Education on digital learning. The guide was published last week and includes contributions from a number of international contributors and covers some relevant topics including course design, technology, safeguarding, participation and inclusion. My contribution focuses on where staff can turn to for help in preparing digital learning and teaching.

“Being” at university in the new academic term is going to be very different for both students and staff, and we are all going to have to learn together about what works, where, when and why. Lots of our old assumptions have and continue to be challenged, we all need to adapt.

The good news is that there is lots of support available, from inhouse teams to the wider sharing of practice from communities such as ALT and individuals like Sally Brown and Kay Sambell who have curated a fantastic set of alternative assessment resources.

Another recommendation I make is to become an online student and see things from “the other side”. Again there are lots of options out there, including Creating Courses for Adult Learners, a new course from the Open University which provides a really solid overview of online course design and delivery.

You can access the full guide here ( behind usual THE paywall I’m afraid . . .)

The upside down and in-between: the uncertainity of where I am right now

Image: https://strangerthings.fandom.com/wiki/The_Upside_Down?file=Upside-Down-S2.png

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I have been finding the last few weeks as we have moved out of lockdown very unsettling.  Whilst lockdown wasn’t easy, it seemed simpler, with just a few big messages and guidelines to follow. A walk a day, no mixing with other people, just going to the supermarket, moving the majority of personal and professional interactinos online, a rhythm of weekly blog posts.

That has almost all gone. Now, we can go more places, see more people. There is a veneer of “normality”, but it is very fragile.  Whilst others around me seem to embrace this, I am finding it hard. Life isn’t what it was pre lockdown, and it hasn’t yet formed into whatever the “new normal” will be. We are in this strange in-between place, where some things seem almost normal but aren’t. 

For example I went to the supermarket this morning, it was quiet, it was fully stocked, they were clearing out small bags of flour for 15p a packet – no-one was filling a trolley full of that.  Apart from wearing a mask, hand sanitiser and disinfectant spray at the entrance, screens and physical distancing at the check outs, it felt the most “normal” since early March.  I went out for lunch last week, which entailed going into the city centre for the first time in 5 months. Again it was almost normal, bar the face masks on the waiting staff, the hand sanitiser spray at the entrance,  and the physical distancing in the restaurant.

But it’s not normal, and I am finding it all unsettling. I keep thinking of “the upside down” from the TV series Stranger Things. That parallel dimension where all the spooky things live, where something very, very bad wants to destroy “our world”. You really don’t want to get dragged into the upside down

The emphasis on care that was so tangible during lockdown seems to be slipping too.  In our efforts to protect ourselves we are using more disposal plastic than ever, encouraged not to use public transport but our cars. Disposal face masks and gloves are not bio degradable but some people seem to think that they are, just dropping them wherever and whenever they have served their temporary purpose. I have found an outlet to express some of my reactions to this here. But once again it is all very unsettling. The consequences of not looking after our environment are even more dangerous for us than covid, but I feel that  climate change seems to have disappeared into the upside down.

Is the explicit emphasis on care for our students, colleagues, courses going to be just as prominent in the new academic term as it was during lock down? I hope so, but I don’t know.  Will the emphasis on staff support and development in online delivery be sustained or have we “all done the VLE training” now? Will the level of sharing of resources continue or will the drive to survive promote a culture of closed resources? I hope not, but I don’t know. 

I’ve been very fortunate that during lockdown I have had a steady amount of work (that you to all who have employed me over the last few months!)  I’ve had some great speaking opportunities that seem to have resonated and have got good feedback.  At the same time, I have had conflicting emotions of guilt because I’ve not been working 15 hour days, having days full of online meetings, that I’m not doing more or as much as many of my peers seem to be doing coupled with relief that I don’t have to do 15 hour days and have days full of online meetings, etc, etc.

Now I just have a gnawing worry that I might not get any work again as university budget cuts start to hit home.  Am I too far away from the reality of contemporary university life to be of any use?Am I slowing being sucked into the upside down? I can feel myself withdrawing from networks, not contributing. It seems to take more of an effort some days than others to go on twitter, to write a blog post, to voice my opinion. But in order to eat I need to be doing that to let people know that I am here, that I have experience to offer, that I am not an imposter, that I am not going to be trapped in the upside down. 

I’m not quite sure where I am right now, like everyone else I’m just figuring it all out. I hope that in trying to explain and share my feelings might help not just help me, but someone else too. And of course if you think I can help you, please do get in touch and maybe we can save ourselves from the upside down as we navigate our way into whatever our new normal might be.  

Time, space, models, AI and exams – a (few not so original) thoughts.

Oh my goodness, what a right old mess the UK has gotten into over this years school exams. Cancelled exams, statistical models, algorithms to ensure that the dreaded “grade inflation” didn’t happen all conspired to make what can only be described as an omnishambles.

Last week, the Scottish government did a swift U-turn on their results which has put pressure on the rest of the UK to do the same. As I write this a news alert has just popped up on my phone saying the PM has confidence in Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Ofqual. Back in “normal” times that language was a signifier of a resignation or a sacking, however these days it may well mean that the PM does have confidence in his minister, and the agency despite the mixed messaging from them both over the weekend.

Perhaps one positive thing to come out of this mess is the start of a public debate about statistical modelling, the development and use of algorithms and the implicit and explicit bias that they almost always promote.

However, this is a very messy business and there has been a huge amount of human complicity and error here too. In was pretty obvious in March that these exams would not go ahead. 

Students themselves have (quite rightly) been very vocal, and visible in their anger, dismay and outrage at the overriding ‘logic” of the bigger pattern and the curve taking precedence over them as individuals. w.

The blame games have already started, with opposition parties seeing huge political capital to be made.  Calls for public inquiries , discussions about what to do next year are all I fear detracting from what is the fundamental issue – our over reliance on exams.

 If we had more continuous assessment and less reliance on final exams, if/ when another pandemic strikes or covid-19 has another spike, we wouldn’t have to worry about exam results or models to moderate grade inflation. Students work could be judged on their merits, there would be confidence in the marking through a shared learning outcomes (which if I am not mistaken do already exist). A more holistic view of students as people, with ideas, with agency, with the ability to express. share and reflect on their views would emerge.  

We could allow students to exploit digital technologies to develop their portfolios, to share their work more openly, to develop more cross curricular activity, to develop agency and critical thinking skills.  Much of this does happen in schools but still, the only thing that really counts are those final exams.  That incredibly stressful, unfair and to be honest quite archaic way of testing memory not knowledge and understanding.  

It’s said by many commentators that our current PM is a “crammer”. Had jolly japes at Eton, crammed for exams and through his loquacious use of slightly arcane language (see what I did there!)  got the grades and the interview patter to get into Oxford and sustain his career in politics and journalism.   The final result is what matters – Brexit, the last UK election, the ‘war’ on covid. . . . unfortunately we all have to suffer the chaos of the this period of uncertainty as we rumble from disaster to disaster. 

We could change the way we assess our children as they leave school. Teachers already have the skills, knowledge, understanding and technology to do it, we just need to rethink time, space and place for on going assessment. It would be cheaper and more effective imho to spend money on that than on a public inquiry into what has and is still happening with this years results.   

I have quote above my desk from a post I saw on social media early on in lockdown, it says “in the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to” (attribution Dave Hollis). I find it so sad that we seem to be rushing headlong back into exams instead of seriously contemplating the alternatives. Is this not is the perfect time to change that old “normal” to a far more equitable “new normal” for assessment?

saw this on twitter today - think we should all have this pinned up somewhere

Supporting an open covid pledge for education

One of the positive aspects of the whole covid-19, lockdown experience has been the refocus on care – care for ourselves, our families,our community, our learners, our colleagues. This manifestation of what I would describe as open educational practice is exemplified in the ALT community resources page which is an ever growing, international resource bank of practice sharing.

Today I am delighted to see the launch of a new initiative ( the brain child of Helen Beetham) to try and ensure that this open sharing of practice, research and data continues. This is what this initiative is all about, and I can’t really put it better than this from today’s ALT announcement.

we need more than shared content: we also need credible evidence on which to base day-to-day decisions in practice and policy. We need urgent research into the experiences of teachers and learners. We need shared know-how, especially from experienced online and distance educators and learning technology specialists. (This summer has seen a generous flowering of blog posts, webinars, infographics and how-to courses – but more will be needed as the ‘new normal’ takes root.) Education globally faces many challenges, not only for the people who work and learn in the sector but for whole organisations and modes of learning. Societies depend on education to improve lives, widen economic participation, and support civic life. Education will be critical to the long-term response to the pandemic crisis.”

So please, if you, your colleagues, your institution is/has/is planning to conduct any relevant research, do join the many individual and organisations who have already signed up, and sign the pledge and help everyone in the education sector and beyond focus on cooperation, not competition so we can all really build a better, research informed, future.

You can find out more and sign the pledge here.

Love in the time of covid

Cover and my pages in the zine

Just a short post to highlight, Love in the Time of Covid, a community driven and crowdsourced project developed by The Alchemy Project in Glasgow. This digital and physical zine shares a wide range of diverse responses the the lockdown caused by COVID-19. It’s a powerful exemplar of just how lockdown has affected a diverse set of people, and also how central community and our localities are to us. Many of us (re) discovered our own surroundings during lockdown.

I first heard about the project in early June from Joe Wilson, and was intrigued by the idea and by the thought of being included in a zine. So I was delighted when my submission was included in the final version. As well as giving a platform for local creatives, the project is raising money for two really fantastic local projects; feed the nation in isolation from Social Bite and the Black Scottish Business Fund. If you would like to help out with the fundraising, donations open until 12 August.

My contributions are my a couple of my responses to lockdown and my growing fascination with images of the covid-19 virus, its structure, patterns, and colour and the patterns I was seeing in nature around my – particularly along the Forth and Clyde canal as I took my daily walks. You can find out more here.

I’ve also just issued a limited edition set of notecards featuring six of the images from my “covid canal” series. I always knew that the artistic side of my working life would have to be subsidised by my consultancy, but I do want to try and share my work a bit more widely. One of the images is part of a work featured in the current Thoughts are Free exhibition at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts.