Which way now? Can we be guided by critical uncertainty? #UWLT2021

This week I was delighted to join colleagues at the University of Worcester and give the opening keynote for the learning and teaching conference. My talk built on the themes I have been thinking about and talking about this year – mainly reflecting on what being and belonging at university (for students and staff) actually is and will be, the role of critical and public pedagogy within our curriculum. COVID 19 has impacted everyone and every discipline, we should harness that as well as our students lived experiences. We need to embrace uncertainty as we move forward. Whilst it is very tempting to wish for everything to go back to ye olde golde pre pandemic on campus day, our immediate future is still quite uncertain so flexibility is going to be key. After the year we have had, If now isn’t the time to radical change then I really don’t know when is. Remembering too that radical change can be comprised of relatively small pieces too.

Before I gave my talk yesterday, I spotted an article from the Irish Times reporting on a recent speech by the Irish President (Michael Higgins). He said:

“We have an opportunity in the wake of the Covid pandemic, with all its personal, social and economic consequences, to reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge; unbiased study that can yield insights that may be applied for the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition, and enabled to address our great challenges. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be squandered.”

I wish politicians the UK were as eloquent about the role and purpose of academia in its broadest sense!

You can access my slides with feedback here, and the basic deck here ; and for the all important image to this post, I did want to reflect on how quickly language has evolved over the past 15 months. So, here is word cloud of words and phrases that are now part of the delegates everyday vocabulary. I’m sure more than a few will be familiar to you too!

Living with the VLE dictator

You know how it is, you listen and read to some “stuff” (and seriously great stuff that is worth listening to and reading). It sets all sorts of triggers in your head about how you work, what you do, and more importantly what you can do to in response. You get a great title for a blog post, then you see from your network that someone else has pretty much written what you had been thinking, but far more eloquently than you. At this point, dear reader, you really can just read this post The False Binary of LMS vs Open from D’Arcy Norman.

However, as the roots of this post were really seeded by listening to Audrey Watter’s recent Beyond the LMS presentation at the University of Newcastle, and as I’m still thinking about her ALT-C keynote and the importance of non North American narratives, I’m going to continue with my tuppence worth.

“Blackboard sucks” – that’s the consensus right? But as Audrey pointed out, even the new LMS/VLE kids on the block are selling their products by saying things like “it’s like just like Blackboard, except it’s blue like Facebook”. They are all about management, administration and not about the learner. They are built on a very traditional model of education. They are walled gardens. If you haven’t listened to Audrey’s presentation, you must.

As I was doing just that on Friday, a number of things were swirling through my head. At this point I probably should mention that here at GCU Blackboard is our VLE and for quite a while I have been mulling about writing a post titled “why I quite like Blackboard”.

Had it taken less than a year for me to be indoctrinated by the evil dictatorship that is Blackboard and by default all other VLEs? Am now I a willing conspirator in maintaining their status quo? Shouldn’t I be leading the insurgency or at least doing more to fight for open? At the sametime, scarily I was thinking terribly un-pc thoughts about benign dictators holding things together, and wondering if I could write a witty, yet well informed post comparing educational technology to the current situation in the Middle East or closer to home the Scottish independence referendum. I quickly realised that I probably couldn’t.

This morning via my networks came across D’Arcy’s post. And as I said, he had kind of written my post. Like D’Arcy, I work with and support the need for the boring, but oh so important administrative functions that our iteration of Blackboard support and that are needed for teaching and learning just now. If we got rid of Bb, I think it is fair to say there would be a fair amount of chaos for our students and staff alike. I have been in several meetings over the last year where a new shiny (and sometimes not so shiny) thing has been talked about with almost awe and wonder. This despite the fact that it just duplicates what are already doing within Bb but without the crucial integration “thangs” that automagically assign modules to students and staff. In these cases I have very much been advocating sticking to the ‘devil we know”, and trying to have a more holistic conversation about learning, where and how it (could) takes place in our context. I don’t want us to just move to something else that does the same thing only with a slightly nicer interface – if we are going to jump I want that jump to matter.

Too often our some of my colleagues really have no idea about what our students and staff are actually doing in terms of collaboration, networking. Because they don’t see it everyday, they think it doesn’t take place. Bb is one of our most stable systems too which again often goes unnoticed and unreported or there is an assumption that no-one uses it.

We are encouraging and seeing more sophisticated use of learning technology across our institution, we are committed to blended learning not only in the sense of blending f2f and online teaching, but also in terms of blending the systems we use. We can (and do) blend third party systems with Bb. Increased use of specs like LTI is opening up new possibilities. Bb themselves are going through some big changes and have been very supportive in listening and reacting to our need. Oh yes, I hear you sigh, that’s because they want to continue to get your business. Which of course is true, but from what I can gather that hasn’t always been the case.

Of course, changing culture is the key to making any technology have an impact in education (or anywhere else), and Audrey did highlight that in her talk. Much as I would love to experiment with more open, connected, student owned technologies such as the example she gave of the “domain of their own” the University of Maryland Washington, the culture in my institution isn’t quite ready for that yet. But it is a great example and one I will be sharing with colleagues and looking to see if we could do anything similar. I am seeing an increasing positive trend in terms of portfolio development which encourages and facilitates networking and open sharing by students.

Networks are also crucial for staff to share ideas, narratives, experiences, and often for me a sanity check. Realistically I don’t have enough influence in my institution to make sweeping changes, but I hope that I can bring ideas back from my network which can help move forward, or at least open up some different debates around our thinking and development of learning and teaching. I need to hear people like Audrey to make me reflect on my practice and share ideas with my internal nework.

So, although in one sense I may be living within a dictatorship, I do believe it is a changing one, one that is trying to catch up with evolving expectations. I may not be leading an insurgency but I hope that I am able to influence changes from within so that we have a truly flexible infrastructure and support mechanisms to allow the space and security for some radical thinking and changes to take place.

What Sheila's seen this week – #turnitofftuesday, 365 portals and a blended learning video

Like many other institutions we were hit by what we are calling #turnitofftuesday when Turnitin went down for a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon.  As ever, this caused a lot of  stress for some of our students who were trying to submit assignments. As we had no notification from Turnitin about any service disruption we didn’t know about it until students contacted the help desk.

For us, this highlights the need for more transparency and guidelines for staff and students in this type of situation. Sometimes I think we need to have a large “don’t panic” button, for both staff and students, as there are a number of things we can do to quickly mitigate this type of situation. It’s also important to remember that for the vast majority of time the service has and is working – it’s just sod’s law that outages happen at peak times. That said, the lack of information from Turnitin has been disappointing to say the least. I know UCISA and HELF are “on the case” on behalf of the sector.  Developing guidelines around EMA (electronic management of assessment) is on our Blended Learning roadmap for this year, but we maybe need to move it up our agenda.

The tension between cloud hosted services and internally hosted is perennial, and at GCU we do rely on a number of hosted services related to learning and teaching, not least for our VLE. We are also embarking on an ambitious portal development programme called “Portals for All” which is based on Office365, and again relies on cloud based hosting. We will need to ensure that we do have transparent guidelines in place for service any service disruptions there too. Over this week I’ve been part of a number of meetings and discussion around functionality, data sources, time, culture changes (you know all the usual fun stuff). Our IS team and the external contractor have a pretty ambitious development schedule, but we should have a new student portal available by August.In the meantime if you have any experience of using 365 based portals I’d love to hear about them.

Since joining GCU one of the things I’ve been trying to do is to identify and to map all the different systems we use to core learning and teaching functionality. Unsurprisingly we already have a lot of duplication of services/functionality and the Office 365 platform offers yet more. So it is going to be really important for us to work with our IS colleagues to ensure that students and staff have a clear understanding of our core provision and support. Getting the balance between trusted, reliable services with flexibility to experiment is going to be crucial.  As part of this I’ve  developed a simplified model for blended learning which highlights some of the practices and systems we are currently using. This will be augmented with a number of cases studies. This short video gives an overview.