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 straight lines or the asterix: some thoughts on time, space and place

On Friday 3 July I was delighted to be a part of the panel in the second of an occasional series of webinars hosted by SEDA. Theme of the webinar was educational technology and educational development:challenges and opportunities. More information and a recording of the session is available here. Many thanks to SEDA for hosting the session, to all my fellow presenters and everyone who attended and engaged so readily and thoughfully with all of my fellow speakers.

Speakers were given 5 minutes to share their views, which is not very long. I perhaps rather foolishly said that I would look at some of the broader issues I feel that everyone, not just educational developers and learning learning technologists, need to be giving really serious consideration to right now – time, space and place. It’s hard to to do justice to those themes in 5 hours let alone 5 minutes, so below is what I hoped to say – some of it I had to cut due to time. It should take less than 5 minutes to read.

I have the pleasure of being first to speak this afternoon, so please bear with me, and indulge me as I go backwards to think about how we go forward in relation to what I feel are our most pressing challenges – time, space and place.

Now the past few months have indeed been strange times – in all aspects of our life, not just in educational development. With lockdown everyone has forced to work at home – with the rest of our families.  Our traditional spaces, places and times of work were taken away from us as quite short notice, and it’s still unclear when and how we will get back to them. In the short to medium term if, and when we do, it will be in quite different contexts and times.

Time is always an issue in educational development – there’s just never enough time to try something new, to find out how to do that thing in the VLE,  to integrate more active learning, peer assessment, whatever . . . But over the past 3 months people have had to find the time to do all sorts of things, particularly with technology that they previously never had the time for before. That has meant moving into new and not so new spaces and places that many had previously never been too.

One of the ways I have been spending my time during lockdown is listening to more radio, podcasts and radio theatre, and one of the best things I have experienced is a play called Adventures with the Painted People (by David Greig) part of a series of works called Culture in Quarantine, from the BBC.

It’s set at the time of the Roman invasion/incursion in Scotland,  and it’s set in the village of Kenmore. It is a basically a two hander between Eithne, the village witch, and a Roman official and wannabe poet,  Lucius. who Eithne has got some local lads to capture.  Eithne wants to find more about the Romans and much of the play is centred around the differences between their two cultures.

One of the things that strikes Eithne about the Romans is their apparent obsession with straight lines, she says quite early on in the play

“ the world’s not straight, it wiggles”  When I heard that, I thought that is so true – how wiggly has our world been of late?

Lucius tries to explain history to Eithne, a concept that is quite alien to her.  To explain he draws a line, a time line, marking events. In response she draws her version of time and says  “time looks like this”, to which Lucius says, equally baffled  “that’s an asterix”  and then Eithne replies

 “everything that has ever been leads inevitably to one place – here and now”

Now this little exchange really resonated with me and has stayed in my mind since I heard it. Over the lockdown my notions of time have really changed – and I know I’m not alone. March seems, not like a couple of months ago but at times like years ago. I feel like I flit from one thing to another – and the connections between space, place and time have become far more fluid.

So as we go forward we really need to give far more serious consideration to notions of time and move away from our “straight lines’’  – of the default 1 hour allocated time slots, the dominant line from 9-5. 

Now if we were Pictish witches like Eithne, we would be able to free our minds and swim through rivers or fly over mountains to do that, but as we’re not we do need to look to technology help us do that. To help us find and understand the intersections between time, space and place, but most importantly to help us focus on people on connecting and sustaining our emerging hybrid communities of learning.  

I think we don’t  want to get obsessed with tech but I think moving forward, taking some time to reflect on how, where and when our staff and students are using and moving between spaces and places, both physical and digital, is going to be really important to help us rearticulate what the student experience (and ergo the teaching experience) is evolving into.

Maybe we should start to think about how to allow for digital desire trails or elephant paths to emerge. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, (and I always think of the wonderful Kate Bowles when I talk about them as she introduced their actual name to me)  desire paths or elephant trails, are those not hand- made but foot or boot- made paths you see that cut across the formal pavements or paths around green spaces on campus or actually around any building complex with green space -even parks. Are their digital equivalents?

But the straight lines can’t be kept at bay for long. The edtech companies, the bigger powers that surround us, that fund us, they want the straight lines – they can’t cope with the wiggles. The want to give us neat, ordered straight lines – to create new narratives, to help us fix and bring about our new normal. But going back to Eithne, she says history is our stories, our songs, it is all around us, constantly evolving.

We need to be sharing our stories, singing our songs more than ever and I know that many people are researching experiences of staff  and students during lockdown we need to be sharing the data from these projects as openly as possible so we can learn together, and evolve our practice.

So let’s look to the asterix not the straight line, and find ways to share our stories, explore new desire paths that allow us and our students to move in and around  spaces and places at times that work for all of us. Let’s  focus on our communities, and finding the ways  that lead us all  to our here and now, wherever and whenever that may be.

The Participation Pivot

In this post I’m going to try and encapsulate some of my thoughts around what is happening just now in terms of tertiary education, the impact of #lockdown and the apparently all consuming online pivot. This post will hopefully augment and complement a webinar keynote I gave on 6th May for GMIT and their DigitalEd Discovery Series. Many thanks to Carina McGinty for inviting me and allowing me to share a virtual platform with the wonderful Sue Beckingham.

Some of these ideas come from conversations I’ve been having with colleagues across the sector and special thanks to Simon Horrocks, Kerr Gardiner and Louise Drumm for the conversations we’ve had recently.

When I hear or read the words online pivot, I can’t help but think of the Friends episode where “the gang’ are trying to move a sofa up a flight of stairs. Of course, all sorts of hilarity ensues as they try and turn a corner, leading to Ross yelling “pivot”, and  no-one actually knowing where they have to pivot to.  I think it ends with most of the gang walking away and leaving Ross and the sofa. I don’t think we ever really find out just how the sofa actually ends up in Ross’s apartment -but as this is just a TV show it doesn’t really matter. If it were real life, the sofa would either have got damaged/broken or Ross would have maybe hired some professional movers to get the job done.

But back to our current online pivot. I think that this episode or meme does help us think through some of the big questions around the so call online pivot in education.  Crucially in terms of these questions: what is it that is being pivoted? Is it the curriculum, the institution? Our learning environments, our approaches to teaching and assessment? Our learning spaces?  And,  who is being pivoted? Our teaching staff?  Our support staff? Our senior management? our students? Our communities? And does everyone know what their role is in this pivot? Or are they just hearing (seeing) someone constantly yelling “PIVOT” and not being actually sure of where they  (or how) they are supposed to be pivoting they just end up walking away or in our cases not applying to uni/college this year or ever.

If all of the above are being pivoted then there needs to be some really consistent, clearly understood, accessible, inclusive, instructions for the start of the new “old” academic year for all students and staff. Although “the pivot” got the sector through the initial chaos of #lockdown,  that just in time approach isn’t sustainable.

There a number of models out there. This article in Inside Higher Ed presents 15. These are very much based on the American model so a couple of them aren’t really that viable in Ireland and the UK. This article from Laura Czerniewicz also provides an very thoughtful, accessible overview of some of the wider pressures on the sector right now.

I’ve also been discussing various options with colleagues that I’m working with, as well as keeping half an eye on other things that people are sharing but it does seem to me that there is something missing, or perhaps just a bit too hidden, in the current discourse, particularly around our students. The pivot does seem to have been done to them and not with them. This is where why I think we need to start thinking more the about “the pivot” in terms of students.

Already we have 10s of thousands of our current students whose “student experience” has been totally disrupted. Exams in some cases have been cancelled, changed to perhaps open book exams which could be a very different experience, particularly when all submission is online. Access to stable wifi, labs, laptops,  quiet and collaborative spaces on-campus has been abruptly ended, with no clear indication of when or if that will resume. 

Whilst the vast majority of students do have some kind of mobile phone, they don’t all have access to their own laptops at home and with the wider context of lockdown they may very well be negotiating use of a family computer with multiple others – all of whom will have their own priorities. The what and how of student engagement is fundamentally changing and any model we adopt for future delivery has to be cognisant of that.

This week in the UK there has been raft of commentary in the media around the injustice of students in England being charged full fees, but not getting an “real” aka face to face teaching. Of course this highlights a general lack of understanding of what online learning is and the very real role of the teacher and wider development teams in successful online learning.  That urban myth of online being second best is something that needs to busted – that conception that “good” tertiary education is exemplified by the lecture at the front of a large lecture theatre really does need to change, and we all have a role to play in doing that.

So I am  proposing that one way to do that would be to develop some extended discourse around participation. Let’s talk stop talking about the as much about the online pivot and start talking about the participation pivot.

Let’s look at participation and what that means for our students and staff and see if we can use what is happening just now to gain back some time and breathing space for everyone. To do this, I think we really need to be starting by revisiting the notion of the student experience. It’s not going to be what it was for quite some time. The social aspect of college/university is gone for at least the rest of this year if not longer.

This is my starter for 10 on developing a model that allows us to work with students and allows our current context to be a key driver for our curriculum development.

revisiting the student experience

For a starting point I’m suggesting we need to really look at the 1st year experience.  We have a large group of young adults whose lives have been turned upside down. I’m sure many of you are living with that right now. Their exams have been cancelled, they’re dealing with “unusual” marking of class work to get their grades, the whole end of school rites of passage things have been cancelled – not trips away, no house parties, no opportunities to really become yourself, which is key aspect of growing up.

The research from about a decade ago now around the first year experience was about keeping students in first year. Just now it is more about getting students into first year. Why would you go to uni this year when things are so unsettled, you haven’t been able to complete the exams you thought you would ,when you might have to do that “online learning” and all the additional challenges that brings.

So we really need to have a major rethink about induction.  It can’t be just one packed week of online webinars just showing how systems work, there’s not going to be a huge queue of students trying to get their library card, but we need to make sure that there getting user names and passwords is really easy and support is in place for that. 

I think the whole induction notion needs to be extended into a wider change of focus take a more integrated long thin approach rather than the short fat model we are used to. I see this a part of a wider flipping of the curriculum and rethinking of digital and physical spaces and how, when and who interacts in them. 

We need to start redefining and articulating what engagement looks like/is for between staff and students, between students and students and between staff and staff – research, teaching, support, management – everyone. For this to really happen I think there needs to be a refocus away initially for subject/discipline content to the development of digital capabilities. Of course there could a discipline focus here but really I think going back to induction the first term/semester should really be about getting students (and staff) comfortable and familiar with institutionally provided learning and teaching technology and their own “new” learning spaces.  

There is a huge co-production opportunity here to work with students and getting their active input into how and when activities are best delivered.  This could be done through a range of activities that focused on the reality of life for us all just now.

COVID 19 relates to every discipline, and every aspect of our life. We could use this time to develop critical thinking and research skills. Looking to critical pedagogy we could encourage our students (and staff)  to critically engage with the current context of our society and education right now. What about some kind of communal, inter-disciplinary digital research methods module for 1st years? Encourage the development of data literacy skills in the context of the daily government briefings, to ensure students know how to interpret data and question and critique how data is presented to the public. In this scenario, 

Library staff could be far better integrated into course/module development and delivery along with other support service staff.  Get students to develop their digital scholarship capabilities much earlier, and encourage them to develop digital stories using a range of media, and really develop more reflective approaches to learning and assessment. 

Also going back to physical spaces, there are going to be challenges in any return to campus, and use of our spaces in relation to social distancing. There may be opportunities for sharing of space between universities, but I think that there might be an opportunity for universities/colleges to work with the community a bit more here too and students should have a role in this too.

Our campuses are technology rich spaces with wifi (and a superfast network that isn’t being used to capacity right now). Given the inequalities that are being so clearly highlighted just now and the ever increasing reliance on digital interactions for every type of service, would it be possible to open some of our spaces to the community (with safe social distancing measures of course). I ca see some great student project opportunities here . . .working across disciplines, across years . . .

What about some of the huge ethical challenges we are facing around contact tracing and the using mobile apps or fast tracking vaccination research and human testing? I know I feel a sense of powerlessness around these issues and to be honest at times  I feel just  too overwhelmed,  tired and scared to explore and critique more. But that’s what education is for. We need to be providing opportunities for our students to gain a sense of agency around these issues and the world we are all living in right now. To investigate, research, perhaps be part of research teams, to question to critique to develop alternative approaches,  that kind of “real world” learning that in anytime is crucial.  Let’s explore and develop our design approaches with our students and really learn together about what does and doesn’t work in terms of meaningful participation and engagement.

In terms of evaluation, our current module evaluation questions could now be next to useless. So why don’t we use students to actively evaluate the tech we are using? Work out together the affordances of each and combine with data/analytics, think about time online – how long do students want to be in live lecture? The balance of sync/async activities. We’re all experiencing zoom fatigue now so lets ensure the education sector is leading in developing and sharing best practice for new ways of working. Let our students go to employers with really effective, innovative was of working and communication effectively online and offline.

Taking this approach of course wouldn’t be comfortable or easy. But we can’t go back to business as usual – everything has fundamental changed. Why are we trying to replicate a system that is no long fit for purpose? 

However what it might do would be to give us the time to develop a more nuanced understanding of what the student experience is now.  Critique, evaluate that with our students, come to common, shared understandings  of what participation means now, and how to  ensure that we are supporting delivery relevant educational experiences to  what could very well be a lost generation. Allowing them to be as  fully equipped in terms of digital capabilities, reflective and critical thinking skills as they can be so that they can take the lead in how their society/ies develop in the (hopefully) post covid-19 world.

Finding the good place for digital transformation

Early this week I traveled to Galway to give a keynote talk at GMIT’s Teaching and Learning winter showcase. I’m writing this as I head home on Friday the 13th, the day after the night before! The political landscape I return too is significantly different to the one I left only on Wednesday.

The title of my talk was “finding the good place: what really makes digital transformation happen?” I used the tv show The Good Place as a way to focus my talk. Partly because I love that show, and partly because it allowed me to use wtf (what the fork) quite a lot:-) But more seriously the narrative themes of humanity, ethics and morality of the show are fundamental to education. There are some subtle and not so subtle differences between these and what I perceive to be the dominant narratives of digital transformation.

The show also makes great use of time, and the notion of having eternity to trying different scenarios. We don’t have that luxury in our world, but time is something that is increasingly challenging in not only our HE sector but across education. In relation to digital (or indeed any other type of) transformation it seems to me that timelines seem to have more significance than time. These timelines need to have far more time allocation for contextual and critical engagement with some fundamental questions around transformation, about what digital technologies we actually need to support transformation of learning, how can these technologies actually help in transforming our curriculum in the radical ways that are needed for our time, to help address the climate crisis for example.

Education is always political. Perhaps today more than most we in the UK are thinking about politics more than usual and just what the impact our new government will have on the sector. Digital services and platforms don’t automagically lead to a “good place” for education despite what the advocates of education 4.0 may espouse. It’s people and relationships not services and customers that are at the heart of education. Slides area available here.

The yin and yang of digital transformation and digital wellbeing

This week I attended the Jisc Digital Capabilities workshop in Edinburgh. It was a really good, free to attend event. These kind of events are really useful for the community and I hope that Jisc continue to support them, so many thanks to all involved in organising the day and sharing their work. This post is just a few thoughts on some of the bigger themes and issues that have been going round my brain.  

Firstly digital transformation. The day started with a keynote from the University of Edinburgh titled “Becoming a digitally capable organisation”. Part of the presentation was around notions (and current practice/developments) of digital transformation.  We were presented with a 3 step model starting at digital competence, moving to digital literacy and then digital transformation.

It was really heartening to see that people were at the heart of much of the ongoing work and the development of their new digital ecosystem.  But, and there’s always a but, surely there is another step?  I couldn’t help thinking how do you know when digital transformation has actually happened?  Is it when digitally enabled and data driven services just work for everyone, anywhere on any device? Or is there something a bit more terms of development of people’s critical capacity to understand and be empowered not only to use these services but also be part of an ongoing dialogue to critique and question the context of why any technology is being used?  

When I asked the question how do you know when digitally transformation has happened? I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction and replies including:

That said, there is an undeniable logic in improving some basic functionality like accessing timetables which does seem to be ridiculously difficult. Digital isn’t always “simply better”,  particularly when we know that many digital systems are built, then collect and use data in biased ways. What is the emotional and human impact of digital transformation and how can, or indeed should, we measure it? 

In the afternoon, there was a session around digital wellbeing. The Jisc Digital Capabilities Team have just published some extended briefing papers for both individuals and organisations.  Their definition of digital wellbeing is “the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental, physical and emotional health”.  

For every positive aspect of digital technologies, there is a negative.  Whilst many, if not all universities and colleges are going through some kind of digital transformation, the day to day life of our staff and students is increasingly being pushed and pulled by the yin and yang of digital technologies.

During a time of industrial action as we are currently in here in the UK, digital technologies and platforms allow a way to share and communicate, but that also brings many pressures.  Lorna Campbell and Tony Hirst have written eloquenty about this. Yesterday I also heard many similar stories and ones of pressures of getting grant proposals in during strike action. Oh, the irony of being on a short term grant and a funding application deadline being slap bang in the middle of industrial action around pay and conditions! As well as decisions around going to graduations of students you have supported for four years. Whilst all the time you know your inbox, marking, wanting to support your students, and everything else are piling up.  


Where is the space in digital transformation plans have meaningful conversations around what are institutions are transforming into?  Where is the discussion on how we could transform our curriculum and our notions of care and support for the wellbeing (in its broadest sense, not just digital) of all our students and staff? Call me an old cynic, but somehow I don’t think that  the noise around education 4.0 going to address that. These issues are at the heart of my recent book.

Earlier this week I also participated in a Virtually Connecting Session about the Digital Pedagogy Lab that is taking place in the UK next April.  Now if we are talking about transformation, Virtually Connecting is a hugely transformational digitally enabled space and more importantly community. The difference it has made to allow people to connect at conferences and events globally is apparent not only in the joy that is always found in the sessions, but in its sustained growth.

It’s all community driven, no Digital Change Director needed.  We need to have more spaces in our institutions for this type of staff and student development. We need to have more recognition for this type of of activity as being valid and recognised CPD.  In terms of digital well being, personally speaking I can’t begin to explain how good being part of a VC session makes me feel.

So back to the yin and yang. I think in terms of digital transformation there definitely needs to be more attention to (digital ) wellbeing and consideration of how the  services and technologies (both institutionally provided the non institutionally one we all use) impact on individuals and our larger institutional communities, be that departments, schools, directorates etc.

There needs to be ongoing space (both digital and physical) provided for people to come together to develop collective understandings of what needs to be done and what needs to be changed. Channeling Paulo Freire, staff and students need to be able to challenge and change what needs to be challenged and changed.  Maybe then we can actually start creating narratives, evidence of digital transformation that are shared and commonly understood. You never know by doing that, universities could actually disrupt business and get their CEOs and staff thinking, why can’t we be run more like universities.

Sharing more about how I am untethering my practice with #InVinoFab podcast

Last month I had the opportunity to take part in an #InVinoFab podcast episode. Laura Pasquini, one of the hosts and founders of the series and I had been having a bit of a twitter conversation after she announced she was leaving her job – something I had done a few months earlier. Anyway after a few DMs and a skype call Laura asked if I would like to share some of my recent experiences, my decisions to do what I am doing now.

It was such a stimulating, fun and quite indulgent opportunity for me to talk about, well me! One of the things I really like about the #InVinoFab podcasts is the range of voices shared on it. There is something so powerful about just listening to someone speaking in a relaxed, but considered, safe space.

I really enjoyed the experience, and hope you can find time to have a listen to our wide ranging conversation encompassing work/life balance, making big changes, ALT, #femedtech , Margaret Atwood and gin.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . . . Jisc Staff Digital Experience Survey

Jisc has published its report of staff version of their Digital Insights Survey.   Over 6,500 staff from across FE and HE in the UK took part in the survey so it provides a very rich picture of current practice and attitudes towards digital learning and teaching.

These large scale reports are really useful to give an overview of what is happening across the sectors. I know if I still worked in an institution I would be citing the report “all over the place” to help justify more sustainable resources and time for CPD around the effective use of digital technologies for learning and teaching.

screen shot of response rate from survey

However, I do find it quite depressing that the key issues still don’t seem to be being addressed. Time and more recognition for staff development around developing digital capabilities come up again and again. They featured highly in our 2018 ALT member survey too.  There is great work going on in the sector, but it still seems to be just in pockets.

In terms of digital infrastructure and  technology provision, this jumped out at me?
Teaching staff may have more opportunities than students to know how things could be better, so it is important to involve teaching staff in discussions and initiatives to improve the digital environment.

It is so important to involved teaching staff in decisions around technology provision. I see so many missed opportunities around deployment of software simply because no-one has thought to ask about the teaching applications it might have.  Similarly with teaching spaces. Sometimes less is more. You don’t need to stuff rooms with every new, shiny thing and as many tables as possible.  Think about how the space will actually be used, the noise levels, the time it will take to get everyone “seemlessly connected”, the impact on wifi connections and signal . . . 

Again, another familiar conclusion – more CPD and training are key to improving teaching staff confidence and expertise. I know I am biased (and full disclosure, I am the current Chair of ALT) but CMALT is a great way to provided motivation, recognition and ongoing development.  

The new pathways offer opportunities for those newer to working with technology through the Associate level, and for more senior colleagues through the Senior level.   As all levels are portfolio based and centre on personal reflection of practice, they provide an excellent way for colleagues to share their experiences of what makes an impact/difference, what doesn’t work and how we learn from those experiences.

Too often we aren’t allowed to talk about failure (which the report does highlight), but it is a fact of life that things go wrong. How often have you not been able to get onto online during a class, despite the fact that everything was working five minutes before your class started?  How many plan B, C, and D’s do you need?  Where do we have the safe spaces in our institutions to talk about these issues? How can teaching and support staff work more collaboratively to address the issues that really do make an impact on using technology in learning and teaching?  These issues can’t be addressed by training alone. As the report highlights:


“too often teaching staff are offered single sessions with no follow-up or support. This may be enough to grasp the basics but it does not allow staff to explore how new techniques can be applied in practice. It is not enough to provide resources and opportunities – there needs to be encouragement, recognition and motivation. Approaches that harness peer support are an effective strategy here, especially when this is built into organisational culture and modelled by senior managers.

Developing digital capabilities is a cultural as well as a technological issue. It has to become embedded in practice and not seen as some kind of add on or one off training activity. Like many, I’ve been saying for years, we need to invest just as much in people development as the shiny, new technology. Online learning is still touted as the future, or education 4.0 perhaps! But as the report highlights:

Teaching online is currently a minority activity that requires time and consideration to develop and scale up

I’ve been fortunate this year to be involved in developing a CPD resource specifically for online teaching at the University of Edinburgh. There has been institutional recognition that staff do not have experience of teaching online, and that they need to be supported, not just how to use a different VLE, but in understanding the principles of community building, online engagement, how to develop online teaching presence (more info here).

Let’s hope that in coming years, the findings from the tracker, and other surveys will have less of the new, old headlines and that support, practice, confidence and capabilities do actually start to make significant changes for our staff and students.

Not quite finding ada: some thoughts on ethics, gender and the humanization of chatbots

Over the past month I’ve spoken at number of events where I have been explicitly calling for the need for more critical and ethical discussions around the use of data and the implementation of any “digital” system, not only in universities but throughout the education sector.  

So I need to walk that walk and not just spurt out rhetoric.  This week at the ALT Scotland meeting, there was a presentation about a digital assistant (chatbot) system which has been developed by Bolton College. Aftab Hussain and his team have developed a pretty impressive system that allows staff and students to access a range of data (information) about their timetable, exams, where to find out about services.  You can read more about their work here.

This is all “exciting stuff” and seeing and hearing the real time responses was pretty impressive. The college are very lucky to have people like Aftab and his team who are able to develop this kind of system in house. I don’t think many colleges or universities for that matter have a team of developers who can do, or have the time to do this type of work.  This post is not criticising their work it is just sharing some wider questions and thoughts that it raised for me around the the development and implementation of systems like this in education.

Firstly, this system has been called ada. Throughout the presentation the system was referred to as “she”. Humanization coupled with classic gender bias stereotyping of the helpful, subservient “user friendly” female. The humanisation of such systems troubles me. The more it was referred to as “she” the more agitated I got.  Ada is not a person, it is a system linking APIs and processing data from multiple sources.

This led to questions around ethics and the who, where, what and when of any data processing. And I was glad that ethics were highlight in the presentation. But wouldn’t you know it, this is all GDPR compliant. Well most of it is , apart from some fuzziness around the use of voice activated systems like Alexa (hello Google you data loving monster).

I am increasingly seeing GDPR around institutional systems as both an assumption of privacy and data protection for users as well as a great get excuse for not doing things.  

I wonder if all the users digital assistants really understand the implications of where their data is going or how it is being used. Whilst data may be anonymized, I kind of suspect that in this case, Wolfram Alpha will be able to use patterns of queries to develop more (biased) algorithms.  

So whilst I can see the benefits of not having to trawl around website to try and find out where to get information about bursaries, timetables etc  and that many students don’t want to/ or perhaps don’t know who to ask for help. I have to say I was impressed by what must be an pretty robust institutional data architecture.  I couldn’t help who is making the decisions about what data is added to the system?   The low hanging fruit (haven’t use that phrase in a while) is all there, but what next?  

Whilst I was at the loo after the session, I noticed that there were free sanitary products – what a great idea. Sadly we have period poverty in this country, and having access to free sanitary products in colleges is wonderful. Asking about where to find free sanitary products could be quite embarrassing on several levels for lots of women. Wouldn’t that be great to be included in a digital assistant? I wonder how many typical (and by typical, I mean male) developers would think of adding that to the system, or highlighting that as a key feature of the system?  Hello, Caroline Criado-Perez  Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men.

Broadening understanding of digital assistants, what they really are, what the can do and what the could or should’t do from a broader perspective is, I feel, increasingly an area where education should be taking the lead. I can’t help thinking that there is an opportunity for educational developers and researchers to work with central teams like the one in Bolton to develop a similar approach to research  ethics applications for this kind of work. It’s not enough just to wave GDPR and check that data box.  

Surely that would help to broaden understandings of terms such as “risk”. In ethics applications you have be explicit about any risks to your subjects. Sharing data in this day and age is a huge risk.  

Again during the presentation it was highlighted that staff could ask the system to show them student “at risk” in their courses.  Risk in this sense was based on I presume assessment activity and VLE data. So students at risk of failing but there are lot of other nuances of risk (including mental health) that our current student data doesn’t, and quite probably shouldn’t ever be able to indicate. 

I also heard the phrase “calm technology” for the first time.  Calm or controlling?  We will drip feed you with the data we think you need, and lull you into acceptance . . . . and when you hear “I’m sorry I don’t have that information, I’m sorry I can’t answer your question” we will send you a video to divert your attention to something we think you might like based on the “calm” experiences of 6 million other users.  We will do as much as we can to divert you from speaking to an actual person as possible . . . Sorry I might have got carried away there, but there is more than a hint of “unexpected item in the bagging area” about all of this. 

So, whilst I can see the appeal of digital assistants, I really think we need to have some wider discussions and debates about just what they are, and who is involved in developing and evaluating them.  

A critical community based approach to changes in HE #arlg19 keynote

Earlier this week I was delighted to give a keynote at the Academic and Research Librarians Group annual conference at the University of Teesside, Darlington.

Information literacy is a central theme in the work I have been doing with my co- researchers and writers, Bill Johnston and Keith Smyth. So in the talk I focused in on some of the information literacy based aspects of our recent book.

A critical understanding of the information structures that are building around every aspect of our daily lives is becoming more and more important. This recent DEMOS report, Warring Sounds; Information Operations in a Digital Age, is worth a look – particularly around some of the militaristic language it uses. Control of what they term “information operations” is not just the battle ground of the future, it’s the battleground of now. Ensuring our education systems (at every stage) are developing holistic and discipline specific approaches to information literacy is key to ensuring that we all can, what the report calls defend (I prefer critically understand and question) ourselves against those who exploit and control information operations is more vital than ever.

At the edTech19 conference last week I was struck in a couple of presentations about students using of video. A couple of studies I went to showed that despite staff diligently spending time curating videos within module spaces in VLEs, students were still going to youtube if they didn’t understand “stuff”. This was causing some concern as the students had also stated that they weren’t totally confident about the veracity of the videos. When I asked in one session if this study was going to lead to including some more information literacy based sessions on evaluating video resources in that discipline, I was told that (paraphrasing here) no, not really there is some study skills material available but we really just don’t have any room in curriculum for that. We need to make room for “that”. We need to ensure that our students understand where and how information/content comes from and how to assess it. It can, and is, being done (thank you wikimedia foundation) – but we need to collectively do more.

My slides from the talk are available here.

Talking about digital transformation at #edtechIE19

Last week I had a the honour of presenting a keynote along with my colleague Keith Smyth, at the Irish Learning Technology Association (ILTA) annual edTech conference in Dundalk.

Keith and I used the framework of our new book to provide the key points for our talk which we titled “Re-imagining digital transformation through critical pedagogy”. In the talk we outlined our approach to digital transformation which situates critically informed academic development at the heart of digital transformation.

The day after the long awaited publication of the Augar review into funding for English HE/FE where the headlines were all about the money, it was timely to look developments in terms of building human agency and criticality and not just in terms of buying and charging for education as a service.

To access our slides, click on the image below.