Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reflecting on JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011

Thought it was about time to write up some general notes from the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011 online conference.

These are my personal summary points for me to reflect on for the future... so here goes...

1.  Online conferencing can be a really satisfying experience in terms of the way you can engage with the speakers' presentations with others.  The flow of text chat is excellent and you can dip in and dip out as you fancy, influenced by the direction of the presentation leading to lots of interesting ideas and possibly less turgid questions at the end?  That last bit is my own theory, but I think that at traditional conferences you so often see the same old people asking questions of the same type that it's refreshing to see a range of questions being picked up from multiple sources.

2. I attend these things for my staff development but also to see what others across the sector are thinking.  Sometimes I feel trapped in a time-warp.  The same old conversations are going on.  The same ideas are being dredged up.  The same tale of 'pilot does well... but how did it translate into a tangible change in practice?' remains without answer.  How can we escape the hamster wheel of discussion and rhetoric?  Small scale change isn't enough any more.  Just because you are doing interesting things in your classroom or nicely contained project doesn't mean that we can't and shouldn't be striving to go bigger and more inclusive where innovation is concerned.

3.  eLearning bingo is alive and well.  Edupunk, anarchogogy and 'changing student expectations' would all have been good to have on your bingo card this time around.  There was some debate about the need to change the use of jargon to gain real ground in understanding, particularly where open practice is concerned - however, this was another of those deja vu moments where I wonder what can actively be done to make this change - when all the while we invent and proudly wear our new jargon like this season's latest fashions at each of these events.

4.  Education and learning are still being used in an interchangeable fashion.  They are *not* the same thing.  The sooner we realise this, the better.  The ludicrous idea that in some way a PhD is evidence of 'lifelong learning' is as meaningless as the suggestion that a great educational experience for a primary school aged child would set them up for the journey of a lifelong learner is nonsense.  Both are about the educational system.  Moments where that works well - then yes, perhaps you can say that true, deep learning exists.  But devoid of any educational system at all... people have always been learning for life.  It's in our nature.  It's what makes us human.  It's how we cope with a changing, complex environment.  It's how we adapt to our various life stages.  The arrogance that education is the tool which facilitates lifelong learning is laughable.  They need decoupling in order for us to get our heads around what makes for good learning experiences rather than what makes for pretty educational systems.  The talk of how people acquired their digital literacy skills was a case in point - most participants (71% of attendees polled during the Digital Literacy panel session) hadn't attended a course or studied it, but had learned about it and gained their knowledge through experience.  Yet, there we were discussing how to educate others in the ways of digital literacy.  An odd situation.

5.  Open is on the agenda.  Open practice.  Collaboration.  Sharing.  Learning from and with each other.  There was a clear direction away from closed, inward-looking practice to a more shared, open outlook.  What that actually means, however, wasn't clear.  Was it the small-scale culture of sharing which already exists in departments?  Is it the large scaled massive open online courses (MOOCs) which were flagged as gaining ground linguistically?  And what is it that we're sharing exactly?  I'm not clear that we're at the stage where we're doing much more than batting around buzzwords - though 'open by default, closed by exception', would tend to be the way I would describe my working practices.  I also wondered how the culture of open and collaboration will sit with an increasingly financially strapped, competitive higher education sector?

6.  Tweetable presentations make you sit up and take notice.  Increasingly I think that people's presentation styles will have to change to accommodate the fact that you may no longer be talking to the audience (virtual or physical) in front of you in the room.  If you can give people some strong concise statements, some facts, some structure to hang a comment on - then these are likely to go out beyond the room.  If you simply describe a project or a process which you've gone through, this tends to be passively received and I noticed that the number of #jiscel11 tweets fell considerably during presentations of this type.  Whether or not that's a good or bad thing, I'm not sure.  But if you want to work in an open manner, then working out how to open up the various elements of your practice will be the thing that makes a difference both personally and professionally.

7.  I really liked the idea of having a 'thinking space' as a kind of reverse plenary on the morning of each new conference day.  The thinking space summarised the main themes of the previous day's presentations in a visual form - they had an illustrator put together some great visualisations which weren't necessarily without controversy (the visual representation of education and employment being islands separated by water, but connected by a bridge was a little disturbing yet representative of the disconnect between the artificial nature of education and the workplace possibly?), but which certainly put you in a good frame of mind for reflecting and connecting ideas.  Really liked the idea and would like to think of ways to carry that forward.

8.  If you're attending an online conference you still need to demark your time so that you can participate properly - whether that's closing a door, finding a separate space to sit etc you have to work extra hard to say 'I'm busy', some how!  People don't seem to readily accept that if you're physically present in work that you can virtually need to be present elsewhere.  You have to take a fairly disciplined approach to your own attendance to maximise the benefit of an online conference.  If that means working from home to properly take part, then it's worth doing this.  In the week of 'pre-conference activities' I was so tied up with meetings / ad hoc discussions / other work that I didn't get to participate at all, it was only when I physically removed myself from the office that I could really engage with it.  

Think those are my main points - plenty of links shared too and I'll try to pull those together into a separate blog posting.

Definitely worth attending.  Really enjoyed it.  Didn't miss the rubbish catering or stands flogging ed tech products I'm not interested in.  And I've got enough stress balls and free pens to last me... so virtual worked well!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011 - Bill Rammell

Notes from 'Tensions in collaboration in a changing landscape'. Really didn’t enjoy this presentation.  It smacked of the sort of talk you hear VCs give up and down the country.  There were nods to ‘student expectations’, the ‘changing educational landscape’, ‘cross sector collaboration’, but really nothing terribly concrete.  It felt like lots of soundbites glued together in many ways. The presenter was Bill Rammell, currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Plymouth responsible for the 'student experience' (a mysterious phrase if ever there was one) and internationalisation.

Rammell started with an ice breaker, where he asked what was the key source of innovative ideas - students, colleagues, JISC publications or another university.  Most people said ‘colleagues’ which doesn’t really come as a surprise since most practice is grounded in the shared day-to-day experience of lecturers.  He then went on to talk about cross-sector collaboration and highlighted it as one of the challenges for consideration, what to do about it and how could we facilitate collaboration.  I do wonder, however, that if the reality is that shared experiences with colleagues, grounded in their own discipline and practice is where people are comfortable, what benefit would they / could they see from something much broader than that?

After that followed mention of the UK Government White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ and he said that the funding reform was the most radical change in a generation.  The argument then followed - as is typical - that student expectations would increase with the increasing fees.  I always wonder however, whether this reflects correlation rather than causation?  It also saddens me that the only thing that seems to have shaken some out of complacency about the ‘student experience’ is the thought that students are now paying customers and *that’s* what drives their expectations, rather than the commitment to a high quality education.

The real turning point in my engagement with Rammell’s talk came when he shared the promo video for Plymouth University.  It encouraged students to think of their university education as ‘less than the weekly cost of their cinema ticket’.  I found this profoundly depressing.  Reducing what is and should be a life changing, mind opening experience of university to being something which is ‘less than the cost of your weekly cinema ticket’ seems to trivialise it to the level of just another consumer good.  And not even any consumer good, but a form of entertainment.  Something which doesn’t even figure in most people’s lives due to cost, the fact that it is a luxury good and often an extremely lightweight, passive means of spending time.

At this point, the response to the talk seemed to change.  People seemed uncomfortable with the terminology being used (judging by the reaction on Twitter) and points were made in response about fear of debt, students as customers / partners etc - and very little mention of their learning.  Rammell also suggested that things like ‘’ might be an appropriate means for selection of HE provider for students - and the commodification of learning made for extremely uncomfortable listening.  His examples of students sharing information about university was also lightweight and again, rather uncomfortable.

Rammell moved on to talking about the potential for shared service and highlighted the guidance available from JISC on this as being a cost-effective and powerful possibility - JANET being a prime example, though increasing cost for these shared services also needs consideration.  He also talked about the importance of digital literacy and asked whether any institutions had a digital literacy strategy.  Only 6% of people responded that they had - however, I’m not sure to what extent this even matter.  Not everything that’s working is that way because of a strategy.  Not every strategy even makes an impact.  

His conclusions were that we face significant challenges in terms of in terms of funding, student numbers, distribution (types of students), increased expectations (from funding) - nothing unsurprising there, but little to do with collaboration.  Rammell’s idea of good news seemed to be that with 40% of cuts to the teaching budget in Higher Education, this was better than in other parts of the public sector.

Thoroughly depressing stuff.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011 - David Puttnam's keynote

Some notes (made up from my tweets during the talk) from the opening keynote of JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011. Held online, the lack of conference freebies was made up for by sheer convenience and ability to participate!

So... the keynote. Delivered by Lord David Puttnam and entitled 'Towards a Digital Pedagogy'. It was a good talk although, as someone observed, he didn’t actually touch on much pedagogy throughout his presentation.  However... definitely worth listening to.

He opened with some extremely interesting contextual material - the notion that we have perceived creativity as a Western phenomenon, for example, means that we have taken our eye off the ball in terms of what’s going on in countries like China.  There has also been a distinct lack of political wisdom in the West and this is problematic when we start to look at education.  Not least because we are complacent in terms of what we can do compared to what others can do.  Again, the point goes back to our perception of China as a producer of cheap products, but the reality is that their impact on creativity (primarily discipline-based creativity and innovation as opposed to free-form originality) has been huge.  Puttnam said that ‘the idea that China will never be creative is our own personal fantasy... we have been looking West when we should have been looking East’.  In essence, as a country we have been complacent and our investment in the future of education - and the investment in ICT in education - has been falling in the EU, despite it representing a dividend.

He then went on to talk about the level of skills within education.  An interesting comparison he made was between medicine and education.  He said that if you took a surgeon from 1911 and dropped them in the 21st Century they would be able to do nothing as their skills would have become obviated by all the advances which have occurred in the past century.  If you took a teacher from 1911, with their ability to stand in front of a board and talk at pupil... and put them in the 21st Century, they’d just about survive.  What does this say about education?  What does it say about pedagogy?  Puttnam concluded that we haven’t moved on in terms of educational development, despite all of the developments in aligned fields such as psychology etc.  He went on to say that we’re losing the trust of learners because of this disconnect.  In order to win back their trust we need to engage far more with their world and also engage with it as they do.

The point is that ‘you will never successfully influence anyone if they don’t believe you to be authentic’ (Puttnam, 2011) and I think this doesn’t just relate to school-based education, or even student - tutor education - it also relates to our role as professional developers.  We are disconnected from the world in which our academic colleagues are working and our guidance is inauthentic and therefore dismissible.  

In terms of how the modern learning space should look, Puttnam suggested that students should become the moderators of their own learning, helping each other to learn.  Where this puts traditional forms of teaching such as the lecture or the ‘chalk and talk’ work which is so typically found in education, it wasn’t clear.  It appeared that an entirely fresh look at education was needed.  A useful analogy was that simply digitising existing teaching materials was like telling the man who used to walk in front of cars with a red flag, to jog.  He then asked what an entirely digital pedagogy could achieve?  An interesting question - and there isn’t an answer to this yet.

There were some interesting points made about the role or potential role for voice recognition in education.  The process of ordering your thoughts to make them coherent for a third party is about oracy and about organisation - key skills for the future.  Though the technology is in the early stages of mainstream use, with Google, Apple (Siri) and Amazon involved, change will inevitably quicken.  It may not be an educational issue now, but Puttnam suggests strongly that it’s an area to keep an eye on.

The last section of his presentation concerned skills development - of teachers - and of the socio-economic value of education.  No educational system, Puttnam said, was better than the quality of its teachers and it was essential to commit to teacher training and ongoing skills development (and allow this to be two-way).  Further, there needs to be global acceptance of the importance of educating women.  Plus, recognition of the impact quality education has on many other areas such as health - investment in education is a win-win situation.  

This could be the ‘Gettysburg Address’ moment for education (Cathy Davidson, 2011 - and it’s worth a read as a provocative and thought-provoking piece of writing which looks at these debates.  The issues currently faced by students are those faced by society more widely, it’s just that they’re hitting students with particular force.  

The TES community - with approx 2 million (off the top of my head that was the figure quoted!) users was cited as being an exciting development.  Bringing together teachers who were discussing and developing themselves.  This feeds into the creativity in learning which he touched on earlier.  Another interesting suggestion he made was that the learning environment should become a ‘copyright-free zone’, where teachers could teach with whatever they laid their hands on.  There would and should be a responsibility for them to teach respect for copyright, but that within the classroom, there should be far greater freedom.  Issues surrounding copyright and fear of infringement are a real barrier to creativity and reuse - which is currently hampering the type of learning which students can experience.

Three themes were summarised as:
1. Use technology creatively as a means to an end not an end in itself (nothing new here and something I strongly support!)
2.  Voice recognition and the importance of oracy plus its value to learners.  It is a big issue... what role will it play?
3.  This is the ‘Gettysburg Address moment’ for Higher Education - what lessons might we also learn from the student protests of the 1960s?

Moving on to talk about employability, Puttnam said that it was a crime that any young person should be unemployable when they leave school - but asked how this could be meshed with parents so that they understood its importance.  He also said that change in education was difficult but used the example of the Open University to illustrate this.  It had been with great resistance by all of the cabinet that the OU had been started - and as Wilson’s ‘pet project’ it was allowed to go ahead.  When Heath came along, he wanted it closed down as he didn’t see the value - but Thatcher prevented that from happening.  The Open University smashed through as a vision. As educators, Puttnam said, we have to take the same risks and get past the obstructions presented to us - even by the leaders of the day.  You need guts to get things through (very very true!).  Technophobia has no place in education.

A final word about the Russell Group and the divisiveness currently going on in Higher Education.  Although it isn’t being explicitly said, Puttnam says that some universities will close as a result of the financial changes being imposed.  Students as customers also not that helpful - they have a different set of criteria to students.  Imagining that the Russell Group will be able to move the UK into the 21st Century was a mistake.  Puttnam cuttingly said that they were a ‘cartel moving fowards on its own terms’ and ‘a disaster’.  Educators needed to work together to deliver a compelling learning experience for every student.  If we slice away at the edges, as the Russell Group are doing, this makes us failures as educators.  A real challenge to those of us who work for Russell Group institutions!

Thought-provoking and challenging.  A good keynote and great start to JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Facebook and the little stuff

What's that?  The sound of Facebook listening to its users?  Good grief!

So, rather than having some hideous automated random content generator sort the newsfeed, users can now change back to 'Recent Stories First'... which is a good thing.  Not least because the immediacy of Facebook and being able to react to what other people are doing is part of the reason that it made sense.  It was simple, it was easy to understand and sorting things by how recently they'd appeared made sense.

No, this isn't exactly earth shattering news, but it does show how important the little stuff can be when it comes to usability and people's interactions with technology.  And how important it is to respond (in a timely fashion) when you're being told by your user group that something just isn't working for them.

Those are the lessons worth learning.  Regardless of whether or not Facebook features in your life.  Getting the little stuff right is always important.
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