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.

https://bendingthearc.substack.com/p/bending-the-arc-january-2023

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.

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

Recording of ATU DigitalEd Conference Keynote

Recordings from all the keynotes from the recent ATU DigitalEd conference, and many of the sessions are now available online . The talks from my fellow keynotes, Sue Beckingham, Phillip Dawson, Tony Bates and Meg Benke are all worth taking some time to watch.

Many thanks again to all the team at ATU for putting on such an informative and enjoyable conference and for sharing the resources with the wider community.

What’s going on with curriculum and learning design in UK HE? – help me to find out

One of the great things about working freelance is that you get the opportunity to work with a range of people. Over the past three years I’ve been really lucky to have been able to work with some really fabulous people, and happily I’m in that situation again. For the next couple of months I am working with Helen Beetham on a review of curriculum and learning design across UK HE, commissioned by Sarah Knight at Jisc.

Helen, Sarah and I all worked on the Jisc Curriculum Design and Delivery programmes well over a decade ago. So it is great to come almost full circle with this piece of work. With everything that has happened over the past 2 years, I think this review is really timely. The pandemic and the subsequent “pivot” to emergency online teaching caused a huge cultural shift in learning and teaching practice. As we transition back to more on campus delivery, have the experiences of the past 2 years impacted practice and what are the main challenges facing the sector moving forward?

As part of the review we have developed a survey which had launched today and will be open until 13th June. We’re also looking for vignettes of effective practice, so if you would like to share more, then please do complete the survey and leave your contact details. Or if you want to find out more – just DM me.

We’ll be sharing the outputs of the review, including the survey results, in late summer.

You can access the survey from the link below. Thank you in advance if you are able to participate in this study.

https://jisc.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/curriculum-and-learning-design-survey

Universities and post pandemic digital praxis: critically reframing education and the curriculum: WIHEA seminar slides

Just a short post to share the slides from a presentation Keith Smyth, Bill Johnston and myself gave at a webinar organised by WIHEA early this week. We took the presentation to further explore some of the issues we raised in a short post published last year by the Post Pandemic University to celebrate the centenary of Paulo Friere’s birth, and also to revisit our previous work around the concept of the digital university.

This is just a marker to share the slides as quickly as possible. During the session we got lots of feedback from delegates around changes they have experienced during the past 2 years and over the next couple of weeks we have agreed to analyse the rich feedback we got from participants during activities in the session, and publish a more in depth follow up post.

We were delighted with the open and thoughtful responses we received throughout the session, so thanks to Letizia Gramaglia and the team at Warwick for giving us the opportunity and platform to share our thoughts.

Do we need a period of convalescence in education?

I’ve been easing myself back into work mode this week. I’ve been “hangin’ around” twitter a bit more, trying to do a bit more formal and informal academic reading, trying getting my brain switched back into writing mode, having more meetings, speaking to people and generally doing “stuff” after work free festive break. I’ve also been trying not contain my rage about the current revelations around the UK govt actions during the first lockdown. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I have been laughing a lot about #partygate, because if I let my thoughts and emotions go the other way my head might just explode with rage; or I would never stop crying thinking about the now over 175,000 people in the UK who died from COVID-19.

We have all been through so much in the past nearly 2 years now. Yet still our future seems to be firmly rooted in the past. Getting “back to normal” still seems to be the ultimate aim. Back to campus, back to exams, back to not having to consider how our actions could impact others health. In our rush to economic recovery (for ultimately that’s all our political leaders really care about) are missing out a vital step around human recovery and the need for a period of convalescence?

Just before Christmas I heard the poet (and COVID-19 survivor) Michael Rosen recommend book called Recovery, The Lost Art of Convalescense, by Dr Gavin Francis. Michael was in a COVID induced coma for many months, so the topic was particularly relevant to him. I was intrigued by his description of the the book so I bought it. It’s quite a slim volume and documents the experiences of one doctor (based with a western/global north medical tradition). The author describes it as “a series of explorations of recovery and convalescence.”

In the first chapter, the author shares his own childhood experiences of convalescence and recovery. He talks about the rehabilitation he went through after a serious knee injury, and the rehabilitation he went through. I was drawn to his description of rehabilitation

the word rehabilitation comes from the the Latin habilis, ‘to make fit’, and carries the sense of restoration: ‘to stand, make, or be firm again.”

I think there is an an analogy here with what is happeing in education just now. There doesn’t seem to be space for any kind of rehabilitation after the roller coaster of covid infections isolations, lockdowns, continuted restrictions. It’s all full steam ahead for “back to normal”. I can’t help but think that this is a mistake. Staff and students need time to recover. Despite the urban myth that moving online wasn’t a real or proper education experience, and seen as an easy option, it was bloody hard work for thousands of staff. There has been a bit more focus on “well being” but that’s not really addressing some of the key issues. Is it too far beyond our imagination to acknowledge that we need to have some space for recovery to heal and regain strenght and perhaps a different perspective on how we actually do things. Gavin says in the book “the flow of my life had been stilled, but it was that stillness that allowed me to heal.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everything stops, but I do think that it is possible to make some space for critical reflection on what has happened and what needs to be done next. Could we revisit notions of the sabbatical in terms of recovery to allow staff some dedicated time reflect, to engage with different pedagogical approaches, with (re)design, to have more opportunity to improve public engagement around online learning and teaching and assessment and maybe start to have an informed discussion about the apparent need for final summative exams? There could be cross disciplinary/institutional opportunities for sharing of ideas, practice whilst on sabbaticals which could then feed back into institutional developments. Every member of staff (academic and support) should be offered the opportunity too.

I’m still really thinking all of this through, however I do think there could be something about revisiting our notions of recovery and convalescence that could help us do more than just “get back to normal’ and actually allow us time to heal and so that our education systems, and more importantly the people who work in them can be restored, be fit, and firm again. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Living and learning in a time of solitude: GMIT #DigitalEd keynote

Earlier today,I was delighted to give the opening keynote for day 2 of GMIT‘s Digital Education Week. Despite not being able to all meet in person in Galway, it was fantastic to be able join so many people from across Ireland and the UK and be part of the event.

For my talk I wanted to reflect on what we have all experienced in the past year of living and learning through a global pandemic. To use the luxurious position of a keynote to ask some questions about our lived experiences, and what we need to think about going forward. I wanted to reflect on words like isolation, self isolation,solitary, quarantine. These words that are so commonplace now, but pre-pandemic were not really part of our everyday discourse and vocabulary.

What really struck me about the quotes I used at the start of my talk about solitude and being alone (and many others I didn’t use) is how out of time and context they seem right now. In all of them, there is a sense of almost noble sacrifice to solitude. Solitude is necessary for great (artistic) work.  It’s as if they all had to justify the right to be alone, to be solitary to achieve greatness, and an enhance sense of self worth. In our present day context, that seems to me like a very distant, privileged concept from a bygone era.  Enforced solitude is quite a different experience, as we all now know. It’s been hard enough to get out of bed sometimes, never mind reach the great heights of getting dressed!

The realities of living, working and learning from home are bound as much by our physical spaces as our digital ones. I used some of the recent work of Professor Lesley Gourlay to explore this a bit more and talk about the entanglements of our phsyical and digital worlds, and the assemblages we have had to create to “be” at university. Today I thought I might stand to give the talk ( I don’t do much standing these days, do you?) so I created my own assemblage of a lectern using an ironing board, and some boxes. All a bit meta, but actually it work so I might do that again!

my standing desk!

The session was recorded so I will add a link to that when it is available, but in the mean time you can view my slides including feedback from participants here.

And here is a screen shot the wonderful sketch note of the talk by Maia Thomas.