We need to talk about “normal”

Six months after we went into full lockdown in the UK, Covid-19 infection rates are rising, we are under restrictions again, and there is a horrible sense of deja-vu in the air. It’s the same but different. The disease seems closer as halls of residence very close to me are shut and students are told to self isolate as hundreds test positive for the virus.  Questions are being raised as to why the halls of residence were allowed to open in the first place, why did universities open when as one student I have just heard on the radio said “we are just getting everything online”  

Meanwhile I’m still watching Battlestar Galactica. I knew there would be more analogies in it! In the opening mini-series, there are a couple of scenes where the new President of the Colonies meets the military leadership of the battleship. Both are hellbent on “getting back into the battle”.  Laura (the President) says ( a bit of paraphrase here)  I don’t know why I have to keep pointing this out to you, but we have lost the war. ( for those of you not familiar with BSG – all 12 planets of “the colonies” have just been well and truly  nuked by the Cylons, and less than 50,000 humans remain alive.  Bare with me there is a point to this!  

As I watch, read and listen to the news, many commentators are pointing out that COVID-19 and halls of residence were a match made in rapid community spread infection heaven so why did unis open them without testing? Why were they hell bent on getting back into battle or “normal” so to speak? I think it’s time to have some serious discussions about what normal actually is in (higher) education.  

I have had a quote above my desk since lock down start, it says “it the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to”.  After some conversations last week I think that perhaps we have rushed back to our formal curriculum (aka normal) without really considering the wider context in which universities are now operating.  

I can see why, the curriculum is a key focal point to getting teaching back on track. After rush of  the great online pivot, the harsh reality of the transitions is suddenly upon. Getting teaching back to as close to normal delivery of the curriculum as possible is an obvious goal, as is getting as many students as safely as possible back in halls and maybe on campus.

I can’t comment with any authority on the situation in halls of residences just now. I’m sure lots of people have worked really hard to make sure that they were as safe as possible for students. Of course universities wanted them to open again – for one thing they need the money as well as start to “get back to normal”. But things aren’t normal just now and they won’t be for quite a while yet. I suspect we will  have at least a year of various levels of lockdown. Even with a decent testing system in place, everyone is liable to be in and out of work/study for the foreseeable future.  

I don’t think our formal curriculum represented this “new normal”.   We need to start planning for now for no exams next year, making provision for alternative assessment method, taking online learning really seriously and exploiting the benefits and flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

In couple of keynotes over the lockdown period, I put forward the notion of rethinking the first year experience to allow students and staff to adapt to our new context. To have a focus on well being, developing digital research skills and capabilities and adjusting and sharing how we can adapt and “be” at university in  our new context, the ever changing “new normal”.  

The experience of university for staff and students is different now.   We need to recognise and develop ways to understand and support a whole new set of seemingly smaller (or micro) transitions we are all making now. For example, the transition from you laptop/phone/tablet on the kitchen table when you are “at uni”, followed the transition from your laptop to your laptop/phone/tablet for catching up with friends and family. Same space and device, completely different context.

Where are the spaces where people switch off, socialise. Where are the “leaky” space and places of the formal and informal curriculum? You know the places where you have those serendipitous discussions about one thing that lead you on a completely different direction for your study/teaching/work.  How open are/can we going to be about what we are doing, what we are learning, what we are really struggling with if we hide behind a drive to deliver the “normal ” formal curriculum.

I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously not working a university just now I fully acknowledge I am removed from the reality on the ground. But I do think that not being obsessed with getting things as close to possible as they were ( but just online!!) isn’t doing anyone any favours. We need to be creating the new narrative about what the university experience is now, not what it used to be.  

We need to be discussing the digital university in a different context now. And dear reader, with my colleagues Bill Johnson and Keith Smyth I am doing exactly that just now so look out for a new publication in the not too distant future

News from the other side

Please indulge me as I share some news from the “other” side of my professional life. I am launching a newsletter to share updates about my artistic practice, with updates on I’ve been doing, work in progress, exhibitions etc and where and how to buy my work. So if you would like something in your inbox that isn’t about managing 27 zoom calls a day, or how to keep students engaged during 3 hour live online lecture, then this is the thing for you.

The first edition will go out over the weekend. To get your copy, all you have to do is subscribe to the mailing list on my art website (obvs all GDPR compliant).

All this has happened before, all this will happen again – not quite back to the lockdown diaries

Well dear reader, it’s been a funny old week or weeks maybe. Here in Glasgow we went back into a partial lockdown last week meaning that we can’t have anyone visit our homes – but we can go out an meet people and go to restaurants etc.  I totally got my head around this as the levels of infection do seem to becoming from infections via home visits not through commercial venues. To me going to a restaurant is safer as it has all the safe measure in place, unlike most of our houses. Not saying there not clean or anything but you know, you do tend to relax and maybe not keep to strict physical distancing in your own living room.  

So far so good, but now we are faced with “the rule of six”. Meaning from Monday, only up to six people from 2 households can meet anywhere.  So, we aren’t quite in total lock down, but social restrictions are definitely ramping up. Meanwhile the UK government  continue to use the cover of Coronavirus to deflect attention from their outrageous behaviour around flagrantly breaking international law around the Brexit agreement.  I have a feeling all this will not “all be over by Christmas.”  

All this will give me  (and anyone else with access to the BBCiplayer) the perfect excuse to re-watch one of my most favourite TV shows of all time – Battlestar Galactica (not the original one but the more recent 21st century TV show). Fellow BSG fans will probably have spotted a reference in the title to this post. 

BSG was one of the most interesting (sci-fi) dramas of its time. It was one of the few, if not only US tv series to directly comment on the American invasion of Iraq. It drew really powerful analogies around the concepts of: insurgency, the role and place of invading forces, collusion and related moral/immoral justifications.  I watched much of it via DVD on long train journeys back in the days when I spent a lot of my time traveling between Glasgow and Birmingham in particular!

As we often say context is key, and this time around I will be watching in a completely different context. For one thing I won’t be on a train!  I know “the plot” but this time around the battle to save c.50,000 humans left in the universe will have a completely different context. Will I see the Cylon threat more as the the threat from Coronavirus (not just COVID-19 but all its past and future strains)?  How will I perceive the human refugees in light of our current refugee crisis? 13,000 people  were made homeless again in Greece this year when the camp there were living in was destroyed by fire. Yet I feel too numb to fully comprehend this tragedy as my main media messages are full of “the rule of six”  and “Brexit”, and our UK governments seemingly unstoppable corruption under the guise of “making Britain great again”

What about climate change? PPE, masks, disposable plastic is back with a vengeance under the guise of protection and personal safety – despite them adding our increasingly out of control pollution problem.   Where is our humanity now? what are our shared values?  In our rush to get back to “normal” it seems that closing borders are more important that opening up and sharing. That first rush of compassion and care that the pandemic engendered seems to be evaporating.

BSG has a fair bit of its own mythology and mysticism in it too, including an arc about finding Earth , the fabled 13th colony, that some rogue ancestors founded. The phrase “all this has happened before, all this will happen again”, is quoted in the series. I think it’s from one of “the scriptures”. It’s a line that has stayed with me, and as we move in and out of stages of lock down, it seems apt to our current context.  When and how we will get out of the lockdown cycle I don’t know, but at least I have something to watch and think about for a few weeks, and maybe a new stream of posts . . .

via GIPHY

Care (and some anger) as an energy – a few thoughts from the ALT-C Summer Summit #altc #altcSummit

In another change to the normal this year, the annual coming together of the UK learning technology community at the ALT (f2f) conference, was postponed and instead last week saw the ALT Summer Summit. ALT is really evolving its online conference capabilities and ways of keep the community engaged and sharing practice. The winter online conference has been growing steadily over the past few years, this years OER event, was an amazing success given the circumstances and incredibly fast turn around from a full blown face to face conference to an online edition.

Of course participation in online conferences is slightly different.  Due to other commitments, I only managed to join the keynotes and final panel discussion live. However, that was more than enough to feel connected with the community, engaged in key issues facing everyone in education (and wider society) just now.  It was just the coming to the end of summer energy boost I needed. 

The theme of the conference, learning technology in a time of crisis, care and complexity was of course perfectly pitched.  Like many during lockdown I found the emphasis on care, for each other, for our families, our communities, our societies, was an unexpected positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. At various times it gave me, hope, a sense of connection and community, and a focus on the really important parts of learning and teaching – human interactions.

Care can manifest itself in many ways, from a simple checking in on people by saying “hello, I’m here if you need me”, to designing learning experiences that take account of changing contextual circumstances.  One example of this was the decision to move to open book exams that many universities took early on in the crisis. The stress caused to students by online exam proctoring was, imho, the antithesis of care  Technology can mediate care but there are complex issues in its use.  The keynote from Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier foregrounded care for both students and staff. 

The zoomification of all aspects of professional and personal lives is “the” example of how technology can bring people together. Its ease of use and I guess really being in the “right” online place and price point (40 mins for free – yes, dear reader, I took that!)  at a terrible time negated the security issues that many were highlighting, particularly in March/April.  

Our need to communicate seemed a fair trade off to access to data about where, how, when and with who we were communicating with. What could anyone do with that data anyway? Even the UK government were having Cabinet meetings via Zoom – what more of a seal of approval could you need. They would have checked out all the security issues, all the implications wouldn’t they?  

Our focus on technology during the crisis has also highlighted the many, and sadly growing inequalities in our society around access to data and technology. We may all be in the COVID ocean, but we are not all in the same boats, or even in a boat at all. 

The Q&A session with Angela Saini (btw loved that format) raised many questions and discussions around race, the history and context of scientific and wider history and accountability. There was also discussion around how the current UK government seem to be in thrall of technology, without actually always fully understanding the consequences. The recent exams fiasco in both Scotland and the rest of the UK has highlighted what many in the ALT community and beyond have been saying for a long time around the bias of algorithms.

Algorithms are not neutral, they are the constructs of the many biases of the people who develop and build them.  Diversity is crucial not only in the development of algorithms but in the decision making process around how /when they are used, the interpretation and use of the results.  We need to constantly question the need for, and the use of algorithms and any form of AI.  

Charlotte Webb’s keynote addressed issues of structural inequality in relation to COVID-19 head on as well as illustrating some alternative, feminist based approaches she has been involved in developing such as redeveloping Alexa from a feminist perspective. Both sessions are really worth catch up on if didn’t get the chance to see them live. 

The final panel session  Learning Technology beyond the crisis: Policies for a sustainable future excellently chaired by Keith Smyth, was more focused on the day to day realties for many of the ALT community are facing around policy and, more importantly its implementation, or as Anne-Marie Scott said how can we start to develop policies as “permissive tools”?  Again really worth catching the session if you. 

If you are like me then your emotions will have been all over the place over the past 5 months. I sway from mild panic to almost despair around the apparent rush to get back “to normal”, despite the virus still being in circulation, despite seeing that alternative approaches can work, that “traditional” exams really are high stakes and too often don’t have a back up plan that doesn’t involve chaos, that care is slipping further down the agenda as money and profit assert themselves as the real priorities. However, from events like the summer summit,  I do also get rushes of joy, of care, of a sense that there are better ways for us to live, learn and work together and not go back to the “old normal”.    

I’m also quite angry at times. We all should be angry at lots of things just now and that was brought up in the final panel session too. We need to hold on to that anger too and use it as focus. And as Keith quoted in the session “anger is an energy”  – and angry energy can be a form of care too.