The Ikea Approach to “digital”

Photo by billow926 on Unsplash

Warning, this post might be stretching a metaphor a bit too far, but there is something that has been bubbling in my head for the last week so this post is an attempt to make some sense of it.

Last week I joined the Jisc Joint building digital capability and digital experience insights community of practice online event. Co-hosted with the University of Derby, it was a really useful day with lots of presentations from colleagues across the sector around what they have been doing to support staff and students over the past 8 months. There was also a preview of this year’s Jisc Digital Insights surveys, but lips have to be sealed on that one. It was a really useful event, so thanks to all at Jisc and Derby for organising and running it.

Anyway, as I was listening to the keynote presentations from Derby – a really comprehensive overview from strategic vision to hands on implementation, it suddenly struck me that in education, we might be suffering from a bit of an Ikea situation when it comes “the digital”. Bare with me as I try to explain. Apologies in advance for this very western metaphor.

So we have our shiny, glossy strategies that layout the vision, mission purpose and the high level overview of the where, what, why and when of “stuff”. They’re a bit like the Ikea catalogue, where every room has that look of if not perfect, but attainable, useful, organisation, practicality and comfort. If you’re anything like me, there’s always something in the layout of the rooms in the catalogue that appeals, alongside that nagging worry if anyone does actually live in that wonderment of perfectly organised storage . . .

So we have our catalogue and we can see the vision for the “perfect” and practical home. We all want a bit of that don’t we? That’s like our strategies – they all make perfect sense, who wouldn’t want to do all the things they set out. The implementation of the strategies – not always so straightforward. Perhaps a bit like when we actually go into an Ikea store.

Despite the homogenous layout, the friendly arrows, you can get very easily get lost, (I spent what felt like 2 hours trying to work out how to get back downstairs once) or distracted, or (in precovid days) get caught behind a family of 20 having a day out with no way to overtake them. It strikes me that this is a bit what has happened as we have tried to develop digital capabilities across universities.

Everyone has seen the shiny catalogue and has seen what they want or how they could possibly improve what they have. So they build their digital strategy. And then they let staff and students go into the store. Many get caught in an endless loop in the market place deciding on just what and how many digital bits and bobs they need. Others are a bit more strategic and know not to get distracted in the market place and just move to where they really need to be. Others are even more experienced (perhaps battle-scared) and know at least one short cut to get to where they need to be. They might even be able to do self check out without having to get assistance!

So I’m not saying that our institutional systems are built like Ikea wardrobes, tho’ at times it might feel like that! I think it’s more in terms of how we use technology, it’s like we all have a “billy book case”. We’ve past the test of finding and buying it we’ve built it but since March this year we really had to use it. I think pre covid, there were many people who treated the VLE (and lots of other learning technology) a bit like the Billy bookcase Ikea flat pack. Only use if you really have to, never read the instructions when you are building it, and you know as long as it sort of looks ok, and it doesn’t fall over, you can live with a degree of wonkiness and let’s just not worry about the left over screws and nails . . . they weren’t that important anyway . . . the shelf will stay up if you carefully balance things on/under it . . .

Thing is we’ve had the instructions for quite a while, it’s just that not everyone saw how important and quite often, how easy they actually were to follow. Now people are having to engage with “the instructions”, and can’t really get away with wonky shelves. Not just at the event last week, but over the past 8 months I see /read/hear so many similar stories of how TEL/academic development units have become front and centre of the ‘pivot’ and the response to the pandemic. People are engaging in ways they never did before, accessing material, resources/support/courses they never thought to before. I have said it before but I’ll say it again, it’s quite sad that it took a global pandemic to get some staff to engage with their institutional VLE.

To me this highlights a couple of things. One is the gap between strategy and actual practice. Having a shiny catalogue doesn’t mean that all your ‘rooms’ will actually look (and work!) like that. Developing digital capabilities for all staff and students needs to to be centred in all university practice and strategic development, and units that support this can’t be seen as optional extras or something to forget about when we “get back to normal”. We can’t just provide instructions that no-one reads, we need to be helping people out of the market place, finding the shortcuts and routes they need and ultimately giving people the confidence to build all the furniture or make an informed decision about why they might just want to go to another shop.

Anyway, this might all be a metaphor too far, but would love to hear what you think in the comments.

A time of equity and care?

On Friday Maha Bali included me in this tweet for an upcoming keynote she is giving. She asked “what is care without equity? what is equity without care?”

As ever Maha’s open practice drew out some very thoughtful responses, some of which she has selected added to her slidedeck .

During the covid pandemic, I have been heartened to see that issues and discussion around care and equity have increased, particularly in my professional network, but also in wider society too. After what seemed like a slow motion couple of days from Tuesday’s US election, the networks “called it” yesterday for the Biden/Harris Democratic ticket. For millions of people in the US and world wide there seems to be a palpable sense of hope, of care and equity.

I feel I have to write something today, but not being a US citizen I can’t comment with any authority on the political situation there. However, as a citizen of the world, and being firmly entrenched in the global north, what happens in the USA does have an impact. And so much of what has happened during the past week highlights many of the issues and tensions around care and equity.

I feel that at his victory speech , President Elect Biden gave threw out a blanket of care:

It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again, . . . this is the time to heal in America“.

However reassuring millions of Americans (and others) found this, there is (as I write) still a deafening silence from President Trump. His rhetoric of distrust around voting procedures and observers are all lacking any evidence, but are a huge signal of a type of care – self care. Denial is how he protects his ego and his actions when they don’t go as he had hoped.

There are many who have benefited from Trump’s version of care during his Presidency. He “cared” for the conservative right, and skewed the balance of the US Supreme Court. How equitable that will be remains to be seen, but will have consequences for decades to come.

I have no words to describe some the interviews I have watched where Trump supporters have parroted unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. These people care deeply about the election result, unfortunately President Trump doesn’t seem to care about them. His actions aren’t equitable, they are, and always have been focused on self care, and self preservation. He has got away with so much for so long, is this finally the time that his actions catch up with him?

Who knows, but I do hope that the narrative of his Presidency doesn’t follow this tradition and that his defeat is the start of a return or resurgence of more equitable approaches to government across many countries (the UK included), and and the beginning of the end of easy 3 word slogan, right wing rhetoric and a resurgence of debate, discussion, recognition of the need for comprise, of knowledge sharing, of care and equity.

The role of public pedagogy, open education and information literacy in a rapidly changing world: CILIPS 2020 keynote

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of giving the closing keynote to this year’s CILIPS conference. Like all conferences this year, it changed from a face to face meeting to an online conference. The conference team at CILIPS did a great job moving everything online. I was lucky enough to be able to dip in and out of the conference over the 2 days it ran. It was both inspiring and humbling to see some of the work that delegates shared.

In my keynote I wanted to focus on the role of information and public pedagogy and the direct relationship they have on each other. In our increasingly confused world ensuring that everyone has the capacity and opportunities (both in digital and physical spaces) to find, share and critique information is increasingly important, if not urgent.

During her keynote, Dry Jenny Peachy (Senior Policy and Development Office, Carnegie Trust UK) mentioned a phrase that really struck me. She talked about the need for libraries to play a central role in ‘resetting the relationship between citizens and the state”. Now if there was ever a time to hit reset it is now! However that is quite a challenge particularly at a time when the state is imposing restrictions on everyday life, without a really well thought out communication strategy. What is happening with the UK government’s lockdown announcement for England. this weekend is a classic example of miscommunication, leading to the further erosion of trust between citizens and the state.

I can maybe draw some solace from living in Scotland where we have actually been in varying states of lockdown for quite some time. There maybe a little bit more trust here in the Scottish Government (even more so I suspect as people realise the benefit of allowing non essential shops and business to stay open). But the longer “all this COVID stuff” goes on, the more feed up, confused, angry, exasperated and exhausted we all get. And then we have the US election . . . which will impact us all eventually.

I know that I have in so many levels switched off, as I don’t actually feel that I have an agency in this situation. I don’t want to shout at politicians on the radio or tv so I limit the amount of news I watch/listen too. I do wonder how, when, and if we can actually hit reset.

In my talk I spent a bit of time talking about how we are negotiating our various states of “normal” just now. Any reset seems obsessed with resetting back to pre covide times. I don’t think that’s realistic. I think we are going to be in various states on restricted living throughout the rest of this year and next. So what we need to be doing is making more time, space and places to develop more shared understandings of the different contexts we are all living and working in now, the science, the data, and interpretations of COVID 19 and again how these are impacting our contexts. Approaches based in public and critical pedagogy are crucial to doing this. It also seems to me that libraries are natural spaces to support these approaches.

However, as funding forces difficult choices around what spaces and services (physical and digital) can and will survive, it is a challenge to carve out time for “service users” needs as active, engaged citizens, instead of desperate, unsure, challenged citizens trying to negotiate the complexities of digitally enabled state benefits.

Although I admit to switching off, I am so fortunate that I can switch myself on again and have the capabilities, platforms and opportunities to have conversations with others about what’s going on. Not everyone has that opportunity.

As I’m don’t work for an institution anymore, I can only have limited impact. That’s why speaking events such as the CILIPS conferences is so important to me. You can access my slides here and the recent paper on public pedagogy co-authored with Keith Smyth and Bill Johnston from which much of the presentation was based here.