ILTA Winter online conference keynote: beyond blended

Last week Helen Beetham and I were delighted to give the keynote presentation at the ITLA Winter online conference. The conference provided us with a very timely opportunity to share the findings of the review of approaches to curriculum and learning design we completed for Jisc last year, but also some of work we are currently developing with Jisc in response to the findings and recommendations of the review.

Starting from the premise that everything is now blended, we are developing thinking around the different aspects of time, space, place and modes of participation that contemporary HE need to develop in order to support accessible, flexible and equitable learning opportunities for students.

Many thanks to everyone involved in organising the conference for giving us the opportunity to present our work. We really appreciated the engagement from all the participants.

There will be a longer post soon from me around some of our emerging thoughts, but in the meantime you can catch up with our presentation in the recording below.

And we’re back . . .

Apologies, dear reader, it has been far too long since my last post. I did mean to post before the end of 2022 but, well none of the dozen or so half written posts really seemed to have the need to be finished and published. The mass exodus from Twitter to Mastadon seems to have now happened. I couldn’t really think of anything else about the whole white, middle aged billionaire buys twitter and f***’* it up being a classic exemplar of everything that our neoliberal age supports that hadn’t already been said.

Whilst I and many of my peers have been lamenting the end of twitter in terms of our networking and sharing of practice, this post by @ImaniBarbarin did make me give myself a good talking too. I just lost one place of instant connection and comfort, so many disabled /chronically ill people  are facing a much great loss around connection and losing their voices.

As the new year starts, I’m looking forward to some f2f learning design workshops and continuing to work with Helen Beetham on a follow up project to the review we did of approaches to curriculum and learning design last year. There will be more to share on that in the coming months, but for now I’m just trying to ease myself back into things in this part of my life whilst balancing the other, artistic part of my life which is actually getting quite busy now.

I always appreciate, enjoy and find inspiration from Sherri Spelic’s Bending the Ark newsletter, and the one that dropped early this week was no exception. In this edition, Sherri shared how she left her laptop behind and reconnecting with friends and did “other stuff” over the holidays. I loved this phrase in particular:

I had a chance to remind myself that I am so much more than the words I put out for others to find.

Yes, Sherri you are so much more than that. And thank you for reminding me and other that many of us are. I always have a nagging feeling in my head that over the last few years I haven’t shared as much as I used to. So I’m going to try and get more comfortable with the realities of my working life and sharing only when I have something useful to share. Not quite a new year’s resolution, maybe more of a reminder. And hopefully that won’t be too long.

A really good story . . .

Our world is full of stories. The stories we tell, and how we tell them are really important.  A story book is a wonderful thing.  I was reminded of just how wonderful “a thing” a story book can be early this week at the final project meeting of the EDTL (Enhancing Digital Teaching & Learning across Irish Universities) project.  Those of us lucky to be there in person got a physical book of stories about the project. You can read the stories (individual case studies) here.

The forward to the book by the Project Manager, Sharon Flynn,  sums up beautifully why this book came about.

” . . .we wanted to tell the stories of all the projects and activities that happened across the 7 universities, over 3 year. At first we tried to tell them ourselves. But telling our own stories is challenging, we are too close, too familiar with the detail, our writing is to academic, and we don’t have the time anyway.  So, we recruited a story teller  . . .”

In academia we are good at writing, but as Sharon pointed out – at times our writing is too academic,  it only makes ” a good story” if you can de-code and demystify the academese.   

There are some very talented people who can do just that, and can communicate very complex ideas in ways that are easily understandable.  But not everyone has the skills, or the time to do that.  The story of the EDTL project is rich, complex and complicated.  It’s been driven by human connections, of people overcoming the challenges of the mass dislocation brought about by lockdown and the subsequent colocation through digital technologies.

EDTL created shared pathways, and different ways of “doing” learning and teaching for staff and students. Its story is interwoven with students and staff working as partners. Students being given a voice, being respected and paid for their time, with true co-created outputs.  A quick skim of the resources section of the website illustrates that. The voice of the storyteller brings all that complexity together in a seemingly simple way.

EDTL was a wonderful project. Its success in no small part down to Sharon Flynn’s masterful project management. It truly was a pleasure and a privilege to play a small part in it.

But now for the ranty bit . . . I know you have been expecting it, dear reader.

The assumed narratives that surround so much of all our working lives and contexts are powerful drivers for change – or in some cases to retain the status quo. During the panel discussion at the event the inevitable questions about “what next?” came up.  I think stories need to be a key part of that.

This project has learnt so much from its student interns. It’s exemplified co-production and the power of students as change agents.  The evaluation of their experiences (research conducted by one of the interns) is really worth a read. But there are so many more stories we need to be working with students to develop and share. 

A key story (or stories) I think we need to be starting to develop, is the new story of what it means to “be” at university for students right now.  It’s not the same as it was this time in 2019, in the pre pandemic, before times.  But are we (and by we, I mean university structures) finding it easier to forget the stories, experiences and evidence of the pandemic, and just go back to what it used to be like? The stories we remember of how it used to be?  

Remember when we all had a window into our “real lives” where the mess and the realities of family life spilled over into zoom/teams when we were all working from home. Those caring responsibilities haven’t gone away, but it does seem that some of the flexibility that help some people at that time is being slowly eroded.

Everyone has been through a really traumatic couple of years, and it’s not getting any easier. There is a war in mainland Europe,  the rise of right wing politics is still on the rise, the cost of living seems to have no plans to stop increasing, the climate emergency is probably beyond fixing, but yet we are still obsessed with  sustaining gas and oil.  That’s quite a lot to deal with on top of being a student.  So many previous certainties have changed.

You can’t guarantee that you will be able to find affordable accommodation once you finish 1st year and can’t get back into halls of residence. It might be in theory easier to get a part time job, but the flexibility that was supported, and students clearly appreciated during lockdown seems to be slowly shut down as the “on campus, in person” mantra (or the old familiar story of what a “proper” university experience should be) is demanded by politicians. 

Whilst providing heat banks, ping spaces (with kettles and microwaves), free breakfasts is to be applauded. It does bring with it some questions around the how and what our physical campus spaces are being used. 

What is the story of a 2nd year undergrad, who is sofa surfing, working part time and  trying to keep up with uni work? What kinds of spaces, times and places for learning work for them. What are their real learning journeys?

I think these are the kinds stories we need to be recording and sharing right now. So as we plan and strategies at university and national levels, we really understand what changes we need to be making to provide the appropriate, flexible, accessible, inclusive learning environments for all our students and staff. We need more stories and story tellers.

Pedagogy, place and pragmatics

Following on from the report that has just been published on Approaches to Curriculum and Learning Design in the UK HE sector, Helen Beetham and I are exploring some of the key issues that were highlighted through the survey and the interviews we conducted. Central to this are issues around time, space and place. Earlier this week we were able to start to share some of our initial thinking during a workshop at the Jisc Student Experience Experts Meeting.

In the interviews I conducted as part of the project, there was a general consensus that after the first lockdown most organisations were quite keen, even quite ambitious about their future plans for new approaches to learning and teaching. There was a sense of an appetite to embrace some the changes to practice that being forced off campus had brought about. Assessment was a huge part of that.

Rapid changes to assessments had to be introduced, along with rapid changes to assessment regulations. Student care was high on the agenda – a visible sign of that was the no detriment practices that many adopted. Again in the interviews, it was clear that lots of the changes from f2f exams to online submissions of various types including open book, authentic assessments have now been adopted.

In terms of wider curriculum change, it was also clear from the survey responses and interviews that the appetite for changes to other aspects of curriculum design and delivery had been divisively impacted by the UK Governments’ insistence that everyone needed to be back on campus, at lectures and doing “proper” in person exams. Never mind the lessons that had been learnt from students about the benefits of more flexible, accessible and inclusive approaches. Strategic statements were subtly altered to reflect as a pragmatic response to that political driver.

However, back in the real world, we can’t ignore that our understandings and use of the spaces, places (both physical and digital) and times for learning and teaching have been altered by the pandemic experience. Students have been off campus, on campus, off campus, on and off campus for a bit . . . and now on campus. Typical 1st and 2nd year students have had their final years of school turned upside down in the same way.

I think how “be” a student has changed, and that might be one of the reasons there have been so many issues around engagement. Where (and when) you actually need to be isn’t as clear cut as it was in the “before times”.

Going back to assessment, some of the comments student interns on the Irish EDTL project made during one of their webinars really struck me. Including the student who very eloquently shared how being able to take assessments off campus, in a space that was comfortable for them, massively reduced their stress levels; another who felt that the design of some of the online MCQs exams they had taken were “mean” as they didn’t allow you to go back to a question to answer it. That experience was making them want almost long for pen and paper exams. In the panel discussion at the experts meeting, Deborah Longworth from the University of Birmingham shared how some changes to assessment are now having impact on the mental health of students. She described how some students can think that a 72 hour open book exam means that they need to be working on it for 72 hours. Does this mean taking time to develop more scaffolding around time expectations, or is it an “in” to go back to fixed, in person exam that everyone understands the conventions of ?

Whilst terms such hybrid and hyflex are commonly used and, are they really fully understood by both students and staff? Do we really have effective examples of how these approaches work in practice. This is one area Helen and I want to explore from a pedagogical lens.

We are starting with time, and thinking in terms of synchronous and asynchronous. Then considering what types of activities/interactions that work best in these contexts, and then starting to map the spaces and places that students and staff need to be in as these activities are instantiated. In terms of broadening our approaches to learning design, do we need to be more explicit about time, space and place expectations in?

As the cost of living crisis starts to really kick in, what additional changes do we need/ are we making to make to our physical estate to support our students (and staff). Warm areas, areas with kettles? What choices might commuting students have to make about how many times a week they can be on campus?

As we discussed these issues in the meeting, a dose of pragmatism was injected into the conversation. Whilst it is often said that pedagogy should always come before technology, in reality it’s pragmatism, and the contextual constraints that everyone has to work with that really make have “the power”. Pragmatics always win over everything else.

I know I have run many learning design workshops where some really innovative approaches have been planned, only to find out that 2 weeks before the start of term, the plans have been changed because of timetabling issues or more commonly not enough staff resource or time.

As the sector moves forward is it just easier to cope with increases in student numbers, and the staff/studio ratio to just timetable in lectures? Is it just pragmatically more effective not to change workload models and notions of contact time to reflect the shifts in preparation/contact time and presence needed, and stick with the conventions we are all familiar and comfortable with?

Hopefully not, and that’s what we are working on now, to develop resources that can help provide guidance and exemplars of how the sector can, and is, evolving to allow us to think about pedagogy and place and hopefully start to change some of the pragmatics and constraints approaches to learning design, and in turn the student experience, exist in. I know Peter Bryant’s recent post on the “snapback” discusses many of these issues in more depth so is worth a look if you haven’t seen it yet.

So if you have any thoughts on this, or would like to share any examples, please do get in touch, or leave a comment. We want to provide spaces to have these conversations and hopefully provide some resource to help others have them in their contexts.

Approaches to Curriculum and Learning Design across UK HE: report now published and available

It’s maybe taken a little longer that originally planned, but I was delighted that at the 50th meeting of the Jisc Student Experience Experts Community, the findings of a survey about changing approaches to curriculum and learning design we undertook earlier this summer was published.

Jisc commissioned myself and Helen Beetham to explore how and if the pandemic experience had impact on HE in terms of changing approaches to designing more flexible and open approaches. The report summarizes the key findings from a survey with 155 individual responses from staff across the UK, and a number of more in-depth interviews. It also includes a review of learning design models in use across the sector.

The report provides a snapshot of changes, successes, challenges that respondents highlighted. Many of these will come as no surprise, particularly the need for more time and care for students and staff. The mental health impacts It also highlights the impact of the original Jisc funding for curriculum and learning design programmes. Many of the approaches and models developed through those programmes are now contextualised and embedded in universities across the UK. It also highlighted the open nature of practitioners working. There are lots of openly available learning design resources.

You can read more about the report in this new item and access the full report and podcast we recorded about it here.

There is some excellent work taking place across the sector, but time and resources are still a key challenge. Helen and I are now working with Jisc to follow up on some the key issues raised through the survey – particularly around the implications of changes to use of spaces, places and modes of participation in education. So watch this space for more updates.

A slow decline, or a sign of something else? Where have all the bloggers gone?

how do you find the time to blog?” is a question I have been asked over and over again by colleagues – even in the pre-pandemic “before times”. I make the time was always my standard reply. Blogging was a habit that I developed slowly and surely. But I did consciously make time for it – both thinking about what to write and then the actually writing. Sometimes that was 10 minutes, sometimes an hour, at most 2. It’s something I have reflected on many times. My blogging habit evolved into something mor for my own development than anything else.

My blog is in a way my professional memory. It was (and still is to an extent) a way for me to share my struggles, get feedback or have the odd rant or three. Since becoming an freelancer, it has evolved again. Whereas I used to try and write a post once a week (and I did used to block out an hour a week to write a blog post) that is harder now. Sometimes I have to wait until I can publish something, sometimes I can’t share direct experience but have to find an appropriate way to share experiences, and I also have another professional outlet where I share a different kind of weekly update.

Now, I know not everyone needs to keep a blog, but I do still think there is merit for those involved in education to find ways to record and reflect on their practice. Pragmatically, just having some kind of record is really useful for all sorts of CPD/ professional recognition purposes. I also really enjoy reading others blog posts. I enjoy a less formal writing style (both as a reader and writer). Reading other reflections on events such as conferences always gives another perspective. I have learnt so much from what others have shared, that I have also wanted to try and give back in a similar way whenever I can.

The ALT-C conference was/is always one of those events that sparked lots of bog posts. Earlier this week when I read the voices of ALT conference round up of posts, it did strike me how few posts there were (at that point). I think there might have been a bit of blip yesterday as a couple of posts, including this one from Lorna Campbell weren’t on the list. Maybe my rose tinted spectacles were imagining things but it did strike me that this list was quite a bit shorter than the last in person conference. (NB Looking again today, the list has got a bit longer).

So I sent a little tweet

to which Lorna replied

and then Paul responded with what I’m sure many are feeling

and of course, not all reflections happen via blog posts as Lawrie highlighted.

But maybe something has changed, as Leo shared.

both Emma and Rich went back to the time issue

But I think it’s more than just not having the time. If we want to do something we will always find the time. I suspect this lack of time for more active and open sharing is linked to the ongoing impact of the pandemic experience.

I did write a post after ALT-C but like Emma I have so many posts that are half written or half written in my head. In these times of crisis, and dear reader, let’s be honest we are in a living in a time of crisis, climate crisis, a European war, UK govt fiscal “controversy” (being polite with my choice of word there) the list goes on . . . never mind just easing out of 2 years of pandemic restrictions. Knowing what to write just now is really f***ing hard. Keep calm and carry on can seem the best way to survive. I don’t know if I would have the energy, or courage to write anything with a critical perspective if I was still in full time HE employment.

So, maybe just being with people at conference is enough for this year. But I hope that people like Leo, Emma and Paul do find time to write. Because if some of us don’t continue to reflect on what is happening, share openly with each other, then we will forget what we have done, and more importantly why we have (or have not) done it.

During the ALT conference there were a number of occasions where discussions focused on the negative narratives particularly around online education that have been perpetuated over the past 2 years, and the need for counter narratives. If we don’t continue to share our narratives, and more importantly recognise the need for and make the time for reflection then it will just get harder and harder ever find that time again. The myth of ” I have no time” will have truly won.

Reviewing curriculum and learning design podcast

What with all the excitement of the recent ALT-C conference, I totally forgot to share the link to the Jisc Beyond the Technology podcast where Helen Beethman and I chatted with Sarah Knight about our recent review into curriculum and learning design in the UK HE sector. Apologies, dear reader, if you have seen the tweet already!

A report sharing details of the survey, interviews and desk review we undertook will be published in October but the podcast gives an overview into the key findings and some of the areas we feel need more research.

You can listen to the podcast from this link.

screen shot of beyond the technology podcast logo

Transcending the digital and physical at #altc22 – the #femedtechquilt

It’s always tricky to try and summarize a conference experience in one post, so this post like so many other of my past conference posts is not going to try to do that. Instead I want to take a few minutes to share what was for me the most important part of #altc22 – the #femedtechquilt.

The #alt22 conference was my first “proper” f2f conference since lock down. I was simultaneously excited and a bit anxious about it. All the preparation, traveling and packing which seemed so mundane in the “before times” took much longer. However being back in person with some of my favourite people was well worth it.

What added to the #joy and sense of place and community was undoubtedly the first public outing and joining of the #femedtechquilt. You can find our more about the origins for the quilt here, it did seem to me (and others) that the more that 2 year wait to see it IRL brought even more resonance and power to the underlying principles of the quilt and its physical presence.

The quilt represents so many people, so many issues. Of course the quilt is a community created object, but its driving force has been Frances Bell, who has spent so much time planning, co-ordinating, stitching, quilting and writing about the quilt.

Frances situated the quilt outside the main lecture theatre used in the conference. It was at once a grounding and centering force. Arousing curiosity, attracting attention, allowing participation, creating conversations and ideas for the future. In quite a magical way, the presence of the quilt provided a way to bind many of us together by providing a safe, open, space to have long overdue catch ups, to share experiences and allow time for reflection and just “being”.

It was wonderful to see Frances explain the history of the quilt to those who didn’t know about it, to help those who had contributed to it find their square, and support and encourage people to make a contribution to squares to be added to the quilt. One priceless moment for me was when Marion Manton (who had organised a quilting circle to contribute squares to the quilt as well as supply lots of fabric for quilting) saw the quilt for the first time. A wave of unrequited joy washed over everyone nearby.

I felt hugely privileged to be able to help drape the completed quilt for delegates to see. I didn’t contribute to the quilt. I had planned to, but at that point in 2019 I had a creative crisis and wasn’t able to do anything remotely creative. However I have promoted and shared what I can about it. And now, I have also sewn a button onto a square!

On the final day of the conference I really missed the physical presence of the quilt. However, I know this first outing of the quilt won’t be its last. So I just wanted to thank everyone who contributed to the quilt, it really is a symbol of hope, of justice and the power of openness.

And of course congratulations to the ALT team, the Trustees, the conference committee and all the presenters and delegates for bringing #ALTC so successfully back to its physical space as well as supporting its digital spaces.

Photo  3 people beside part of the quilt on a table
Lorna Campbell, Frances Bell and Catherine Cronin with the quilt

Turning up the learning design heat – LDCIN meeting, recordings presentations

This week saw the welcome return of a meeting of the LD-CIN (Learning Design Cross Institutional Network) hosted by Jim Harris, University of Northampton. This informal group of practitioners involved in the support of learning design started quite a few years ago, I remember attending a few meetings in those rose tinted pre-COVID days. I had planned to attend face to face, but given the extreme weather conditions I decided that travel via London wasn’t really a great idea! Despite the record breaking heat, quite a few people did manage to travel to Northampton in person.

One of the benefits of the pandemic experience is that we now can easily have hybrid events and accommodate late changes of plans. Even when the tech doesn’t quite go to plan, it is amazing what can be done with a mobile phone until tech support arrives. Those of us online also appreciated seeing the alternative air conditioning uses of leaf blowers for in person delegates.

Alongside Sarah Knight, I was delighted to present some of the high level findings from the recent Jisc survey on approaches to Curriculum and Learning Design in UK HE. We are still working through the data, and preparing final shareable outputs, but it was a great opportunity to share some of our findings with the group. The whole day was full of sharing of excellent practice in supporting learning design from across the sector.

Recordings of the sessions are all now available here, our session is named Part 2 in the playlist (direct link here.) You can also access a padlet board with all the presentations (including ours) alongside additional resources and a rather good playlist if you are looking for some new summer tunes, including this video from me which I’m going to share here because it’s too good not to!

Time for a digital go slow? Just what are we doing with ed tech?

This is one of these posts I have to start with a caveat that I actually don’t really know what I am trying to say, so it will probably be a bit incoherent (well, a bit more incoherent than normal!)

Last week I attended the ALT Scotland annual meeting. The meeting was always planned as a hybrid event, and with the national rail strike this week, a few more people took advantage of that option. I did go in person as it was in Glasgow, so I had a low carbon travel footprint. I was originally going write something about the event -which was great – thanks to the organisation of the group co-chairs Joe Wilson and Louise Jones. You can see more about the event here.

It was great to be at a face to face event. Like everyone else I have missed being with people over the past 2 years. Over that time I have also got used to, and benefited from the flexibility and convenience of online meetings/conferences/events. But face to face is always best isn’t it? Well yes and no. During and after the event, I couldn’t help thinking about these words from the University of Edinburgh Manifesto for online teaching:

Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.

I don’t have access to EduRoam so didn’t try to connect to wifi. I was a wee bit late (another online meeting) and so when I got there I just wanted to listen/engage with speakers and people in the room. I didn’t join the zoom room. It turned out that most of the speakers were actually online, and being able to see the chat message notifications ping up on the “big screen” I was aware of missing out on quite a lot.

Now, I know I could have joined the online space too, but I did feel that would have been too much cognitive load for me aka I couldn’t be a**** to scroll through my email, find the link and join – after all I was in the room! So that got me thinking about hybrid teaching (which we did have a good discussion about in the room once the “official” meeting had ended), and just where and what screens should be showing – a screen with a chat window might be more useful than a camera on a person.

When we were leaving the room, a colleague from the college mentioned that the camera on the front of the “big screen” could track eye movements of people in the room, provide staff with data on engagement.

OMFG was the reaction from myself and a few others. Ethics? Data processing? Proxies for engagment – don’t know about you but some of my best thinking has been done when my eyes are closed and/or not staring at a screen. So I was going to write something about that but then I had forgotten about an University of Edinburgh seminar I had signed up for with Neil Selwyn titled digital education in times of climate crisis.

Now I am not even going to attempt to summarise Neil’s presentation, it was recorded and I’ll add the link here when it is available. Neil was very up front about the session being more of a provocation and an opportunity for him to present some “things” he has been thinking about in relation to the climate crisis and ed tech.

Although I am aware of the inequalities around technology and the digital divide, I probably have a bias towards a positive view of the benefits of technology in education. That’s not to say I am not critical of technology use, far from it. As Neil’s presentation unfolded, I did become acutely aware of how little I really consider the environmental impact of my use of technology.

As Neil pointed out, ed tech is actually based on excessive use, an always on culture with limitless data and storage. The irony of listening to that on my super-fast home broadband on my laptop, whilst checking my mobile phone notifications via my “very good mobile data” contract was not lost on my and I was once again so thankful for all the privileges I have. I also had that nagging voice in the back of my head about really needing to find time to work out the costs of getting solar panels on my roof.

Of course over the pandemic the issues of digital inequality and wider social inequalities came into stark view. Yet, the answers from ‘big tech’ don’t really seem to be addressing these issues. That pandemic amnesia (that ability to forget everything that as happened over the past 2 and half years) seems to be setting in again. Being back on campus will solve everything . . .

We can pay lip service to increasing, flexibility and accessibility through tech. Cameras in the classrooms will allow us all to be together. They can even automagically follow “the teacher” as they move around the room. But is that actually what anyone – staff or students need? What pedagogical principles is that supporting? How much energy is that using? Particularly if cameras are also tracking and sending to systems to process potentially vast amounts of data that as well as being ethically questionable might not actually be of any practical use to anyone.

Over the past year there does seem to have been a rush to buy lots of tech and refit learning spaces without that much consideration of how it can actually be used effectively and what its ROI will actually be. It is all to easy to be guilty of succumbing to the big tech promise of shiny, new solutions that cost us more and are ultimately causing us to use more energy (mainly from fossil fuels) that are killing the planet.

So what can we do? Neil used the lens of eco-justice to explore notions of decoupling technology form economic growth. Perhaps we need more “voluntary simplicity” with an accompanying focus on community, conviviality and care – a form of “digital de-growth”.

Of course, this is really challenging. How can we shake ourselves out of our comfortable complacency? If my current digital networks and connection opportunities were taken away, I would be bereft and probably unemployed. I have found online spaces full of positive conviviality and community. Can/could I find a digital equivalent to the slow cooking movement? An approach that would allow me to keep the most important elements of my digital needs whilst at the same time balancing my environmental impact? (Must, must check out those solar panels . . .)

How can we be “realistic but resistant” to ever more ed tech consumption? Neil suggested that perhaps one starting point was to think what might be ed techs version of the bicycle – is it the Raspberry Pi? Do we just need to be thinking smaller, less “shiny”, and be more connected with coding and making? My former colleague Christine Sinclair commented that maybe we all need a “cradle to grave” environmental impact assessment to help us make informed decisions.

Maybe . . . One throwaway comment Neil made was that he always encourages cameras off in online sessions. A small way to reduce energy consumption. That got me thinking of that scary, eye tracking camera – maybe we should just switch them all off too or at the very least have a conversation with our students about them and let them decide.