The Ikea Approach to “digital”

Photo by billow926 on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the text book, using learning resources for open educational practice workshop

Last Friday, 6th February, I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop at DCU hosted by Dr Eamon Costello, Head of Open Education, NIDL, Dublin City University.

The webinar was one of a series of open workshop events funded by the National Forum taking place across Ireland. Around 25 delegates from a number of universities and colleges gathered at DCU for a morning of sharing the realities, challenges and opportunities of thinking not only open educational resources such as text books, but wider opportunities of developing open educational practice for staff and students.

Often when I am involved in events like this, or when I am just talking about openness in general, people are interested in finding very specific places to go to find “the good stuff” or the “best tools” or the “most inspirational example of openness”. Now, that is quite a challenge to answer as there is a lot of “good stuff” (and equally not so good stuff) out there. One thing that I have to come to realise is that the most inspirational part open educational practice is the generosity of people who share their practice openly. Maha Bali is a great example of this. Her blog is a constant source of ideas, inspiration and she always brings a constructive critique to everything she writes about. Just reading things from a different point of view has had quite a profound effect on my own thinking and practice. Similarly, being involved in running events such as BYOD4L (one day we should bring that back), and trying (I’m not as regular participant as I would like to be) to take part in tweet chats such as #LTHEchat are just some of the ways I try to be open.

The format of the workshop was quite simple, with 2 main objectives – 1) to get people talking and sharing, 2) to use a bit of technology for interaction and sharing. So this is what we did.

Introductions it’s always good to get a bit of an understanding of who people are and why they have come

Digital Pursuits : After discovering this board game developed by Shri Footing based on the original Trivial Pursuits but adapted to use the Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework, I have used it successfully at a number of workshops as an extended ice-breaker type activity. It really does get people talking, and thinking. There is also, for those that want it, an added competitive element. It’s also really interesting observing how different groups of people decide how to play the game.

Sharing realities, challenges, opportunities for OER/OEP: Using a padlet board delegates were asked to share one example of their open practice and one example of a current challenge. Storage, curation, maintenance of resources all still big challenges.

Developing open approaches to curriculum development: The final activity took a step back from resources to thinking more broadly about curriculum development. Using the digitally distributed curriculum model developed by Keith, Bill and myself – we discussed ways in which the values we propose in the diagram are/could be integrated into practice. Again we used padlet to share ideas.

Overall I felt that this worked well, allowing both a bit of focus and flexibility for delegates to talk and reflect on what their own context. It does seems to be harder and harder to find space and time to just think about what we do and how we do it. The funding model from the National Forum, where small pockets of money are given to institutions to run workshops like this, is I think, a really practical and effective way to make some space for thinking. I wish there was an equivalent here in the UK.

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.

What Sheila's seen this week: the homogenisation of engagement interfaces

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Spoiler alert this post probably won’t be as good as the title.

Yesterday I was involved in running a workshop for our PGCert Learning and Teaching students on digital learning. One of the exercises we got the students to was to map their “learning and teaching” based on the extended Visitor’s and Resident model (more info here).  An innocent tweet of some the maps provoked a bit of a discussion,

which you can see in this storify.

But that’s a bit of an aside to the title of this post, though it was pleasing to see the engagement with the activity.  We try exemplify a number of different engagement modes throughout the workshop, and indeed my colleague Sam Ellis who is the module leader, is using a variety of different approaches both for f2f and online activities throughout the module.

Thanks to 1minuteCPD, last week I came across Zeetings – a new to me anyway service for “free flowing, ground breaking, swash buckling engagement” which will  “transform your meetings, presentations, lessons and events by empowering everyone to participate from their own device.” It’s even got a friendly beardy hipster on the home page so it must be great!

Anyway, I was intrigued so had a look and it did strike me that it could actually be quite a nice tool to use in f2f sessions for getting interaction/feedback/engagement (pick the one that suits your need).

After a chat with Sam we decided to give it a whirl.  It does have a nice UI, it’s pretty easy to use, it generates a url for you to share with those you want to access your presentation (you can make it private if you want).  It’s pretty easy to add simple polls like this:

and it has some (limited) chat functionality, included a like/start option. Of course it has analytics built in – well all know that “understanding your audience is at the heart of being a remarkable presenter”.  The basic version lets up to 30 people access a “zeeting” and you can’t access all the functionality.  But if you are creative (think groups here people) you could get more interacting with the system.

As we used it yesterday, it did seem to be quite good, nothing extraordinary, but it did allow for some enhanced interaction (group and individual) and feedback. As we were watching some of the group work come through my other colleague Jim said, “it’s quite like Facebook”, which led to this post.

I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that UIs are becoming more similar.  Does it mean that everything – even any radical, alternative to the VLE – is just going to become one homogenized user experience? Are we “liking” our way into digital oblivion? Do like buttons really count as meaningful engagement? Are we (and by that I mean me) just sucked in a bit too easily by an apparently friendly, geeky, beardy icon?

I hope not.  Part of being digitally capable is being able to assess and evaluate tools/claims around engagement.  As educators we need to question the appropriateness of any kind of functionality, explore and share more why we find it useful.  Zeetings did allow us to easily create some engagement opportunities for a f2f session that we couldn’t easily, or as prettily,  do within our VLE.  Would I use it again? Probably? Would I pay for it? Probably not. But I bet I will be looking at something very similar in the not too distant future.

Domains and devices of one’s own


I access probably about 90% of my working life via a network and some kind of provided institutionally internal or external service provider. I create and share a fair but of “stuff” at work, as well as accessing a range of entertainment media at home.

After spending a good few hours last weekend clearly out dusty old VHS tapes and DVD’s part of me is actually glad of the lack of that kind of clutter. I am fortunate to be (just now)  in a position where I can pay to easily access music, films, tv programmes. It helps me declutter my physical (owned, well it will be when I pay of the mortgage!) world.

But what do I actually own online? I don’t really think about that as often as I should. However, this morning a post from Audrey Watters in response to one from Maha Bali, has really got me thinking.  I can’t do justice to Audrey’s post, so just go and read it.  Audrey calls for us, and particularly those of us in education to resist the casual acceptance of the “post ownership” society.  She writes:

“How do we resist this? (And resist this, I contend, we must.) We resist through education. Yes. But we also must resist at the level of structure, at the level of systems, at the level of infrastructure. We can challenge how the Web and the Internet work – at the level of politics, power, money, and technology. But we can do so only if we understand what’s at stake, if we understand that the Web and the Internet are not naturally-occurring entities but are corporate and national forces bending towards certain ideological ends – privatization and profit.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative is one way that space is being given to provide educational experiences that can help our students and fellow teachers to develop the literacies they need to contest and contribute meaningful to society. Having access to a “safe” space is key to that. “

This week I’ve also been having discussions with IT colleagues about university provided digital space, data handling, personal and institutional responsibilities. They are planning future service provision and having the usual debate about service provision. I have been asked: how much university “space” do I use, what devices do I use to access that space, I am using encrypted/unencrypted devices to access said spaces, do I use “other” no university provided cloud spaces, how much data do I use in each of these spaces and how much do I think I need. Answers on a postcard please.

I use a lot of non university spaces at work.  Some of which I pay for e.g.  Evernote where I do a lot of writing; other’s that I don’t e.g. google drive/drop box. As each service provision “evolves” I weigh up the pros and cons of each and decide if I am willing to move from the “basic” (free at point of access) or  pay for “pro” features.   I don’t do a lot of “proper” research, but when I do, I do store “stuff” university space due to the legal and ethical requirements of any research project the university sanctions.

However, my data needs for that are, I think, relatively small.  I have no idea how much space I use – do you?  I don’t keep a running tally. Should I?  The only service that I get any “space” grief is my university email account which does have a limit and I have got quite close to that. I may get a tad annoyed about that as my personal email account never seems to run out of space. . .  My commitment to open education also means that I share my “stuff” as openly as possible. For example using our institutional open repository for sharing “stuff’ I have (reasonable) confidence that it will be available to me even if/when, I no longer work here.

During the conversations with my IT colleagues, the old command and control versus (appropriate) access and enablement did feature.  Universities should have enabling services, they should have transparent procedures in place to ensure that institutional and individual data responsibilities are being met. Whilst I know that the “I just put it into dropbox because it’s so darn complicated to access the secure shared drive” is not a valid excuse, it is a widespread reality.

This of course leads us to personal and institutional digital capability and knowing where to access and store different types of information/data.  I suppose in a way I do rent my desktop machine and my iPad from my institution. They are institutionally provided machines, gateways to institutional services.  They also allow my access to my own personal spaces. Increasingly the line between institutional and personal services are blurred.  For example I  have quite a different level of personal attachment to my ipad than my laptop.

Like many other institutions our students get access to office 365 and potentially a huge amount of digital space. Unlike A Domain of One’s Own we don’t have an explicit institutional view of how to use this space for as our mission states “the common good”.  We are in many ways just perpetuating the digital status quo, allowing microsoft to “get ‘em and keep ‘em”. We’re not really thinking about data, access and control beyond our legal obligations.  We’re not really thinking creatively about safe digital spaces.

As ever this post is a bit of a ramble and more me trying to sort my thoughts out.  I am now rethinking my comfort levels in terms of my post ownership relationship with my digital “stuff, and how I can in some small way enable some more creative thinking about our institutional provision.

Where Sheila’s not been for the past few weeks – more healthy living than digital detox?

So I’ve just come back to work this week after my summer holidays. By the end of three weeks I had almost forgotten about related work emails and tweets. I wasn’t staring at a screen for most of the day. It was a bit of  to quote the phrase of the week, a “digital detox’.

However I didn’t go completely cold turkey on the old inter-web. I just was interacting in a different, more relaxed way. More photos shared via  instagram.  There was no hidden altruism there –  I wanted people to know I was eating lovely food, in lovely places, not at work.  There was less tweeting, though my automagic daily update provided by Paper.Li keeps going regardless. It seems when left to its own devices to have taken a  particular liking to smart cities. I have nothing against smart cities, and do tweet about them,  but perhaps it has skewed my “presence” a little in the past few weeks.  That might be a topic for another post around digital presence.

I was still keeping in touch with friends, the world, but not as much as non-holiday times. A large part of my professional life and work is centred around networking and sharing so not having to be online is now something I really look forward to during holidays and increasingly weekends.  But I wouldn’t want to be totally disconnected. I am constantly shifting the balance of my connected, digital life. Being able to instantly share, explore, find out about “stuff” is something that has brought an added mostly positive dimension to my professional and personal life.

This weeks annual Ofcom Communications Market report has whipped up a bit of a  media storm around how many people are now more actively taking a break from their “smart” devices.  The internet is taking over our lives, families no longer talk they just sit around the house gazing at their phones/tablets. It would appear that in the UK we are are spending more and more time on line, as the report states

“Our Digital Day research shows that we are spending more time on media andcommunications than on sleeping. The average UK adult uses media and communications services for 8 hours 45 minutes, and sleeps for 8 hours 18 minutes.”

What we are actually doing on line does vary depending on our age.

“16- 24 year olds are more likely to embrace these newer on- demand and online services. Today, instant messaging is more important to this age group than any other means of communication, and playing video games is seen as being as important as watching live, recorded or paid- for on-demand TV. However, for older adults, watching live TV remains the most important media activity.”

But there is hope for the old foggies:

“Despite this older people are increasingly exploiting digital communications technology. .  . Although they tend to use more established services such as linear TV , SMS or email,many are also embracing social media or on- demand services (among 55- 64s, 51% use the former and 42% the latter in an average week).”

The infographics in the report give a clear picture of the break down.  Below is small selection.

If you have time, exploring the Ofcome digital day research site is also quite fascinating.

Looking more closely at the report one thing that struck me was in relation to what people are actually doing online was this:

“While watching is the most popular activity overall, young adults spend more time communicating”

Not unsurprisingly whilst skimming through the report, I was thinking about the similarities between broadcast media and broadcast education. We still rely heavily on the broadcast lecture in HE.  It’s the norm, the expected, the comfortable and at times necessary and effective.  Moving to more interactive, collaborative models we know is better for actual learning, understanding and knowledge creation as opposed to transmission of knowledge.  I blogged about this earlier in the year in response to a post from James Clay. However if our average undergraduate (18-24) is communicating more then surely that just strengthens the case for harnessing more digital communication within education. We don’t need to take over SnapChat or What’sApp, but we do need to be integrating more flexibility of communication within our curriculum design for formal and informal learning.

Having your nose “stuck in a book” has always seems to have had positive connotations, particularly in relation to education and learning. So maybe having your nose stuck in your smart phone (even when in a lecture) should increasingly become seen as a positive thing too? Just as with bookworms, reading all the time isn’t healthy or safe, if you’ve ever seen someone trying to walk down a busy street whilst reading a book you’ll know what I mean.  Neither is being online all the time, or constantly looking at your phone (related to this check out this great post from Simon about the dangers of people and  PokemonGo). We need to help everyone find the right digital balance so we can allow everyone to  integrate digital technologies in the most effective way for them.

The angst of time, technology and VLE sediment #altc

As an additional #hashtag activities at this year’s #alt conference, participants were asked to use the hashtags #my #altc to highlight their “best bits” of the conference.

I had high hopes for the “are learning technologies fit for purpose?”  session, however despite Lawrie saying he didn’t want this to be a re-hash of “is the VLE debate” of a few years ago, it did seem to turn into a bit of VLE bashing, with the underlying inferences that learning technologies = VLEs and they weren’t fit for purpose.  I did have to have a bit of a rant at the direction of the discussion leading to #my #altc moment

screen shot of twitter message

(which did seem to go down quite well with the rest of the people at the session


To VLE or not to VLE, that seems to always be THE question.  It is, imho, actually the elephant in the room. We have them, so can we just move on please.  It’s how we use them that’s important.  Martin Weller has a good post on the session too, and blame him for the VLE sediment phrase!

As all the keynote speakers either explicitly stated, our digital footprints, data and access are all changing.  Even our so called “learners 2.0” spoke about the ubiquity of technology in their lives but the scary moment when you have to use in “in the real world” in your job, in their case as they were trainee teachers, in the classroom. Confidence levels can swing dramatically from using digital “stuff” for your own purposes to when you have to use it in learning and teaching.  I know in my institution we have many new teaching staff who come directly from professional practice and their knowledge of “learning technology” is very limited, and based on their own experiences. What’s new there, I hear you ask dear reader. We know that all teachers just do what their favourite teachers did.  Well yes, but just now not everyone has had experience of blended, and or fully online learning. They are often still trying to figure it all out as well as cope with a very different working environment.

In the discussion the issue of time came up. Some people think this is a non starter as if someone wants to to do something,then they will make the time. Which is true to an extent. But, if staff member isn’t confident in using whatever their institutional VLE is, then the chances of them being able to find the time with increasing teaching loads gets smaller. New technologies (learning or otherwise) alone won’t solve this. If we want to create digitally confident learners and teachers we need to give time for digital experimentation and failure. A closed, (relatively) safe space such as a VLE is good place to start that.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called “Living with the VLE dictator”, a year on my thoughts are much the same. However, I do see an opportunity to reframe the debate around people digital capabilities and use of (learning) technologies not just the technologies themselves.