On evaluation design pt 1.

Some thoughts on my approach to evaluation design

I’ve just finished another internal evaluation of a project. This time it’s the AMORES project http://www.amores-project.eu/ Reflecting on the evaluation, and the similarities with the previous evaluation I did, led me to some realisations about the sort of evaluations I conduct, how they are designed, and what their essential elements are. I thought I’d collect these together into a couple of blog posts, mainly so that the next time I design one, I can remember the best of what I did before.

I should specify that I’m discussing particularly internal evaluation. For those not familiar with educational projects, most of them have two evaluation strands. One is the external evaluation; this is conducted by someone outside of the project who examines how well the project functioned, whether it met its goals or not, how well communications worked within it, and so on. It’s part of the Quality Assurance, compliance and accountability process.

The internal evaluation asks questions of the learners, teachers and anyone else involved with the educational aspects to identify good practice, look for tips that can be passed on, and encapsulate the overall experience for the learners and educators. In short, it’s there to answer the research questions addressed by the project.

There’s a good deal of overlap between the two, but they are essentially different things, and should be done by different people. You merge the two at your peril, as part of the external evaluation is to address the success of the internal evaluation. And you do really need both to be done.

I’ve been the internal evaluator on 13 education projects now, but the last two (the other one was the BIM Hub project http://bim-hub.lboro.ac.uk/) were very similar in evaluation design; I think I’ve cracked the essential elements of what an internal evaluation should look like.

Part of the issue with being an internal evaluator is that, even though you’re part of the project team, you’re not (usually) one of the teachers. And teachers on projects have their own agenda, which is to teach (obviously) and, quite rightly, this takes precedence over all the analysis, research and general nosiness that a researcher wants to conduct.

For this reason, an evaluation design needs to be as unobtrusive as possible. Most education activities generate a lot of data in themselves, artefacts, essays, recordings of teaching sessions, all of these can be used without placing any additional burden on the learners or teachers. Sometimes the evaluation can drive some of the learning activities. So, for example, you need students’ perceptions of their learning; so you set as an assignment a reflective essay. You need something to disseminate, so you set students the task of creating a video about their experiences, which can also be evaluation data. And when we’ve done this, not only does this prove to be a very useful set of data, it also becomes an excellent learning opportunity for the students. Teaching generates a lot of data already, too, such as grades, results of literacy testing, pupil premium figures, tracer studies. As long as the institution releases the data, then this is stuff you can use with no impact on the learners or teachers.

So here’s the first set of criteria. Evaluations must be:

Unobtrusive, opportunistic, aligned with teaching practice

The second set of criteria is related to actually having an evaluation that makes sense. There’s no point gathering a set of data that are more than you can deal with (having said that, every project I’ve done has). Also the data you collect have to be targeted towards finding out something that will be of use to other practitioners once you’ve finished the project (I’ll come to outputs later). The RUFDATA approach is a good one here. There’s also no point trying to gather so many data that no-one will look at the surveys you’re distributing, or complete them if they start them. For length of survey principles that seem to work are:

Quantitative questions – no more than one page (and use a 5-point Lykert scale obviously – anything else looks ridiculous – but add “don’t know” and “N/A” as options too.

Free text questions: well no-one wants to write an essay, and if it’s on paper you’ll have to transcribe them at some point anyway. As far as numbers go, a good rule of thumb is that if it’s a number you’d see in a movie title it’s OK. So seven, or a dozen, or even 13, is fine. More than that is pushing it (and if you’re going to ask about 451 or 1138 questions then full marks for movie trivia, but minus several million for being a smart arse. The point of the movie title thing is that if you see your research questions as characters in the narrative you’re going to weave, then you don’t want to overcrowd your story anyway. Putting too many in then becomes pointless. You want all your questions to be Yul Brynners, rather than Brad Dexters.

So: useful, targeted, light touch, practicable

A third set of principles is based around whose research is it anyway? Which will be covered when we reconvene in the next post.













Joining Brookes

As I’ve just started working as a Senior Lecturer in OCSLD (the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development) at Oxford Brookes I felt it was time to start blogging regularly (not trying to blog, do or do not, there is no try). As there’s not much yet to report about my work there, this first one is more about where I’m at, and why the change, and what changes are likely to be coming up.

I’ve posted a lot on my Facebook account about these changes using the metaphor of The New 52. Having reached 52 years old this year, this feels like a mid-way point in my life (optimistic, right?), so out with the Old 52 and in with the New. Any mainstream comics fans will recognise the metaphor, a few years ago DC Comics rebooted its whole line under the banner of the New 52. Every comic started again from #1 – even the ones that had been going for 73 years. After four years of working as a “freelance academic” I wanted a reboot. A proper job in which I had a team of people to work with, a platform in which to share my ideas, and some regularity of income so I could focus on work, rather than being distracted by the need to find more work, or chasing clients in order to get paid for work I’d completed.

Also consultancy work is excellent, you meet loads of people, get to travel to some interesting places, but an academic career really survives on publishing research, and as a self-employed consultant, any time you spend writing is a financial cost. It’s one thing to write for free, it’s another for it to cost personally hundreds or thousands of pounds to take the time out to write a book chapter.

It’s not like I worked on my own before the Brookes job came up – the team on the AMORES project are an excellent team, for example, but they’re distributed across Europe and we only meet four times a year. My daily interactions are predominantly with my cats. And it’s ironic, I know, or perhaps hypocritical, to mainly work (at the moment) on how best to facilitate online teamworking and then bemoan the fact that I entirely work online with people.

However, I would never argue that face-to-face collaboration is entirely able to be substituted with online interactions. However, I am enough of an extrovert to need the communication with people to feel motivated by talking to others. I’m also enough of an introvert to need to work on my own after a couple of days of interaction. A 0.6 fte post is therefore ideal for me. I’ll still be teaching at Worcester until January, and I’ll still be working for a few clients.

However, anyone familiar with the New 52 metaphor will know that any reboot is preceded by a Crisis (deliberately capitalised cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_%28DC_Comics%29) .

My flashpoint was the double whammy of my brother-in-law dying (the day before my 52nd birthday) and then my father dying two weeks later. The sheer admin involved is overwhelming, but of course it’s the emotional fallout that really has the impact.

September and October was the key month for me in AMORES (I’m leading the evaluation workpackage, and as everyone who will listen to me knows, without any evaluation there IS no project) and I’d planned for the majority of my commitment to be done with before I started at Brookes. It didn’t get done. I’m still contracted to work on AMORES until the end of November, but the original intention was that it should be some small bits of dissemination, not writing the actual whole thing. So my family, my wife’s family, my AMORES commitments all collided with my new job; in the collision of parallel worlds you’d expect from a capital-C Crisis.

However, it was a good test of how accommodating my employer (errm still got a bit of a culture shock at that word) would be with allowing me time to respond to all the various intruding realities. Last week saw the completion of the AMORES report (180 count ’em 180 pages long) the spreading of my father’s ashes (which ended up a farcical rather than solemn occasion) and everything is now sort of coming together on an even keel.

My main roles are to help implement the TEL framework here, and support the development of the OCSLD’s online presence. I’m also co-tutoring on a couple of modules. More things will emerge as I’m here longer. I will just keep stepping up and try to make myself useful. Make myself useful (no try, remember).

I’ve got an ID card and a car park pass, but then I have four others of these from clients when i was self-employed. What is exciting is my own desk, an office key, my own stapler and desk tidy and TWO hole punches.

Just in time for my honeymoon in Vietnam starting on Saturday (for two weeks). Then a conference in Dubrovnik (one week). So more testing of OCSLD’s patience.

I will be at ECEL http://academic-conferences.org/ecel/ecel2015/ecel15-home.htm presenting the hot-off-the-press findings on AMORES. If you’re there then please come up and say hello.

Is it wrong to discriminate against assholes?

I’ve just read this? http://www.economist.com/news/international/21645759-boys-are-being-outclassed-girls-both-school-and-university-and-thegap Which makes interesting reading. It does raise the question for me though – is this really a problem? The generalisations they are making about the sexes (which the article admits are generalisations) are that on the whole girls are hard-working ambitious and studious whereas boys are lazy, aggressive and in awe of a cult of masculinity which states that being academic is effeminate (to put it mildly).

These are generalisations though. Many boys aren’t into a macho culture (or are so socially inept they are oblivious to the fact that there is one – author disclosure: that was the category I was in), many girls are pretty dreadful.

The implicit undercurrent in the article is that this is a problem in education that we need to fix. Boys are underachieving compared to girls, but that is when you take them as a whole. I’d be very interested in seeing a study in which the divisor isn’t boy/girl but asshole/non-asshole (explanation: I’d think someone who buys into macho [or macha] stereotypes is behaving pretty horrendously and so therefore fulfil this definition).

The gender gap could be actually just because a bigger percentage of boys are assholes than girls. If we try this new divisor we might see no gender gap at all. Just that the system is, quite reasonably, making it more difficult for people to get on because they’re complete knobheads, which they possibly deserve, and rewarding the good kids because that’s what they deserve.

Continuing this line of reasoning, therefore, we don’t look at different ways within the system to appeal to the knobheads out there, we actually try and make social changes to reduce the number of knobheads in the education system – combat the culture of masculinity that says being studious is effeminate (or even that actually effeminacy is not such a bad thing).

Having said that, attempting a range of different learning approaches is (intrinsically and self-evidently) A Good Thing, so in the attempts to appeal to the less able, or less interested students, we’d be making education better for everyone. A lot of children are disaffected because they are bored, which is also a very rational and intelligent response. That’s down to us. But maybe the gender divide in education is down to them.


The role of the teacher in learning environments

I recently was asked in Facebook by my friend Di – “I keep mulling around the importance of the practitioner as the key defining resource in learning… feeling very ‘anti’ commodification of education blah, blah again – is this anything you would be interested in? do you hit on anything like this? Would be very cool to look at how manipulation of new learning environments can be linked back to the centrality of the teacher in the educational process? Possibly? Maybe? Has it been done?” It’s a good question – in the debate on VLEs (or I prefer the US phrase LMS since it seems more honest to refer to them as a way to “manage” learning) on an ALT mailing list someone said that a lot of the problems with Blackboard spring from it being designed by technologists rather than pedagogues. Probably true, but the thing that indicates that teachers are still at the centre of the learning experience is that, no matter how bad the platform a good teacher can produce a good learning experience, and a no matter how great the platform, a bad teacher will create a bad one. I’ll concede the tech helps one way or another, though. This is why criticisms of PowerPoint cheese me off. PowerPoint is a passive tool, if you use it well it’s great – it’s just that too many people (and I could probably own up to this myself) use it as a prop to avoid thinking too much about the learning experience. So they produce crap. And so they switch to Prezi because they think this’ll make them look hip, and for a while people are impressed until they realise it’s the same dull presentation, just with added motion sickness.

But Di’s central implicit point I’m sure is – is it fair to say that new learning environments have been exploited to commodify education. The answer is “yes” unfortunately. I’ve been at meetings where people who should know better talk about putting stuff online so they can bring in thousands of students really cheaply. I’ve just finished a study which indicates that – outside of a few rare contexts where they can work, MOOCs do not have a sustainable business model. Students want education that is free, but they also want education that is valued, and that means qualifications. But for qualifications to mean anything, they need robust assessment, and (there are a few specific exceptions) this means human intervention. Which is expensive. That’s a circle you can’t square. Some people like to study for its own sake, some people like to create learning materials for their own sake. In those scenarios MOOCs FTW. Otherwise, no way.

There is a school of thought that you can make the materials able to be worked through on their own, that people can read them and just pay to pass a test, and this will bring education to the masses, and everyone will be able to make money off it by stacking edcucation high and selling them cheap. This is the commodification that Di’s concerned about. It’s been the model in the private sector for decades. (Reality check – the division I’m about to describe is a generalisation, I’ve seen good and practice on both sides, but my experience is that this does represent the two positions of the two sectors on the whole). I’ve sat in presentations by private sector companies that think e-learning and computer-based training are synonymous. If you read the magazine “E-learning” there’s loads of adverts in there about how “Content is king” (usually accompanied by a pic of Elvis).

There’s that Oxford Union debate between Diana Laurillard and some private sector representatives about whether e-learning is effective or not, and the majority of it is taken up with talking at cross-purposes about what the word e-learning means. Because if you’ve been working in the field of e-learning in HE for the last 20 years you’ll think that e-learning is about forums, social media, wikis, annotated artefacts, virtual worlds, webinars. The actual content isn’t king, it’s a serf, in the background, called upon when needed, produced when needed, borrowed, shared, but ultimately of little value. That’s where the confusion in the Oxford debate arose. In the private sector there was some backlash against e-learning, with some commentators saying it didn’t work, because people need to be connected, they need tutors and contact with other learners; their definition of e-learning didn’t include those things. In HE learning environments, that’s the heart of what e-learning is. That’s what worries me about those conversations where people are talking about pushing out large amounts of content to people and letting them work through it on their own. It’s a retrograde step.

That’s not to say it never works. I went through an computer-training package last month on data protection. There were bits of videos, some MCQ tests, which were automatically marked, and then you had another chance to have a go if you got them wrong. I learnt quite a bit. So it worked. People have taught themselves by reading books, watching TV shows, working through MOOCs, but these are limited in subject matter, and/or limited to particularly special types of learners who can learn like that. But some stuff needs to be talked about to be understood, some stuff isn’t about being understood, but about being able to work with the ambiguity, some people just need the extrinsic motivation of being part of a learning set to get there. So we need two terms really for e-learning environments. One which is just content, and self-paced and about large numbers of students just learning facts. The other which is still about tutor-student, student-student interactions, and is participative and experiential and enables contextual and applicable information. We could differentiate them with qualifying adjectives, let’s call them crap e-learning and potentially good e-learning. Let’s hope that with the buzz around MOOCs kicking off the pound signs in the eyes of senior managers the one doesn’t get conflated with the other..

AMORES project – the first deliverable


One of the projects I’m working on is the AMORES project, headed by CARNet in Croatia, and funded by the Comenius programme http://www.amores-project.eu/. The aim of the project is “Discovering a love for literature through digital collaboration and creativity” a phrase that took us a long time to develop, but time well-spent as this focuses our attention on the key goals of the project – yes we’re hoping to promote literacy and reading, but the actual aim is generating a love for literature, if literacy improves as a consequence, then great. The means by which we’re hoping to do this is by creating learning activities in which schoolchildren in five different European countries (Denmark, Croatia, Poland, Sweden and the UK) create digital artefacts, mainly videos, and share these with each other.

The first task in the project fell to me, which was to look at the work that had been done in this area before the project started, and also gather together the experience of the contributing practitioners. The report covered the theoretical bases of the work (constructionism, storytelling and experiential learning, looking at previous similar projects) – a key one for us was the Sheherazade project http://www.sheherazade.eu/sites/default/files/deliverable/d3/deliverable3_EN.pdf – and also tried to identify where some of the problematic areas in what we were trying to achieve might lie. The full paper can be read from here http://www.amores-project.eu/results.html (you’ll need to register first, though).

Putting together the report was an interesting process, and it went through many revisions (thanks here should go to the people who read through it, commented and provided additional information – they are Vedrana Vojković Estatiev, Gordana Jugo, Tina Richardson and Geoff Walton). There’s too much in there to cover in a single blog post, so below I’m just going to pick out a few key things.

1)       There’s no consensus on what constructivism or constructionism mean.
Moving from the physical sciences to the humanities as academic disciplines over my career hasn’t been that difficult, apart from in one aspect, the ambiguity around terms. In physics, people might disagree about – say – how many dimensions there are, but they use the same terminology to have that argument in. In educational theory constructivism is variously defined as learning by building things, as learning by building knowledge, learning by building on knowledge, and so on. And the word constructionism is often used interchangeably with these. I don’t find this very helpful, so have tried to impose a set of definitions that disambiguate the terms (although looking over my paper now I realise I’ve used constructionism at one point where I meant constructivism, which doesn’t help either).

I’ve picked constructionism as a term to describe what we’re doing, because well Papert. Since he wrote a lot of the early theoretical stuff on this I’ve gone to him. I like his definition of constructionism because it encompasses a lot of the concepts of constructivism, but divides them into two main aspects. I find taxonomies make things easier to get your head around, although there’s a danger in mistaking the map for reality. The two main aspects of making things are that learning happens because of the creation of an artefact (which is some people’s definitions of constructivism) but also the creation of the artefact involves a social collaborative activity (which is defined by some as social constructivism. Therefore by cherry-picking various definitions we can come up with a clearer definition of what we’re doing i.e. constructionism = constructivism + social constructivism. I’ve used the specifics of actually making things as the basis for our terminology because the more general idea that the learner builds up their knowledge through adding ideas together is pretty much captured by the phrase cognitivism. But from now on, can we all agree to pick one word to mean one thing?

2)       Constructivism has had an upgrade
I like the idea of making stuff and learning by actually having physical things, because I’ve seen it happen in virtual worlds. OK I’m stretching the meaning of the word “physical” but you know what I mean. By actually coming together to build something that has an external reality people develop a shared understanding of what they’re working on, and see each other’s perspectives. There’s also a whole lot of science about embodied cognition, that holding and shaping things works directly on the brain. That’s what we’re trying to do in AMORES (other reasons below). However, one thing I came across in the reading for this, which I think is worth passing on, is that THE VERSION OF BLOOM’S TAXONOMY YOU ARE USING IS OUT-DATED). Well if you’re using the one I learnt, it’s outdated. There’s one put together by Krathwohl in 2002 which places creating at the top of the hierarchy, i.e. it involves all the other stages to get to it (these are Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analysing, Evaluating by the way). If you find using Bloom’s terms helpful, you might want to read the paper. Andrew Churches in 2008 came up with terms drawn from digital technologies, just to bring them really up to date.

3)       Face-to-face co-creation is plentiful, online co-creation is rare
People use a lot of social media, but despite this, they rarely use social media to actually replicate online the social dimension of co-creation that Papert describes. People tend to upload stuff, and go as far as liking or commenting on it, but the incidences of actually sharing and mixing artefacts in an educational context are rare. It’s another part of the myth of the digital native. There’s some interesting studies (Scardamalia, 2004 and Colasante, 2010) using annotation tools to generate “artefact-centred” discussions, but these don’t happen in mainstream education at all. Although we found some great papers on the role of creating artefacts in education (video is very popular, take a look at Allam (2007) for example, I still have boxes of the proceedings in the attic if anyone’s interested). Furthermore, when we looked at the experience of the schools involved, they’ve all got experience of creating videos in the classrooms, but none had really used social media in their education. Indeed, one or two were very reticent about the whole idea, I think a reaction to how it’s been demonised by the educational establishment in their countries. In identifying which areas of the project are at risk, this one stands out – not only is there not a background of online content creation, and the social learning that can triggered by content creation, in the literature as a whole, using social media to support learning is not something the schools really do.

4)       Experiential learning and storytelling are very similar
Learning is always more effective when it’s reflected upon. We’ve all seen this (you might know it, but do you know that you know it?) Reflection is also an opportunity for students to learn metacognitive skills (how do you learn what you need to learn). For these reasons scaffolding the creation of artefacts and the social aspects of creation into an experiential learning cycle provides a chance to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. That would be a given in a set of learning activities. However, reading through the Sheherazade report I came across Dahlsveen’s model of storytelling. I can’t reproduce it here (no rights to it), but you can check it out in the original report. It shows the stages that a story goes through from shared creation, to performance, to reaction to revision. This is (according to Dahlsveen and I’d have to agree from my own experience) is what makes storytelling such an engaging and motivating experience. What struck me is if you take her model and bring it round into a cycle, it looks like Kolb’s learning cycle (which is itself based on Lewin’s idea of an engineering feedback loop). Here’s a picture of Lewin’s experiential learning cycle and Dahlsveen’s storytelling model as a cycle:


cycles in sync

So ideally we could scaffold the students’ experience of storytelling so that it could become an experiential learning experience at the same time as being a motivating, engaging and most importantly fun experience for the children. However, if the performance and audience feedback is also going to take place online, then we’re stuck in the same impasse of needing to support the social interactions through social media. It’ll be something to aim for, and exciting to see, but I think this is one area where we will need to place a lot of resources and evaluate what we’re doing very carefully.

Allam, C. (2007) “Using filmmaking to teach students about Shakespeare, urban regeneration and other stuff” in Childs, M., Cuttle, M. and Riley, K. (eds.) DIVERSE Conference Proceedings 2005 & 2006, Glasgow: Glasgow Caledonian University

Churches, A. (2008) Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally, Tech & Learning, 4th Jan, 2008 http://www.techlearning.com/studies-in-ed-tech/0020/blooms-taxonomy-blooms-digitally/44988

Colasante, M. (2010) “Future-focused learning via online anchored discussion, connecting learners with digital artefacts, other learners, and teachers”, Proceedings ascilite Sydney 2010, 211 – 221

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview, Theory into Practice, Volume 41, Number 4, Autumn 2002,

Scardamalia, M. (2004). CSILE/Knowledge Forum®. In Education and technology: An encyclopedia (183-192)

Sheherezade Consortium (2011) Sheherazade, 1001 stories for adult learning Theoretical background for methodology: summary, http://www.sheherazade.eu/sites/default/files/deliverable/d3/deliverable3_EN.pdf

Post-digitalism – an evolutionary perspective

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective::

Reviewing the Post-digital – five years on

When we were coming up with the idea of the “post-digital” back in 2009 the phrase that seemed to sum up the concept for me was “disappearing into use” – a phrase I heard once and have not been able to remember who to attribute it to. One quote I do know the source of is “Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet” – which is of course Douglas Adams. There’s McLuhan’s idea (which is covered in Sherry Turkle’s excellent “Life on the Screen”) that when tools become incorporated into our sense of who we are so much that they’re part of our bodies they are more like prostheses than tools. Evolutionarily, technology created the species homo sapiens as much as the other way round. Then there’s Stelarc who gave me a great quote for my last book: “humans are kind of a chimera of meat, metal and code”. If that’s true then technology continues to drive our evolution as a species.

Five years ago I was heavily immersed in virtual worlds. I’d just started finished collecting the data for my PhD about learning in virtual worlds. I was part of a community of academics within Second Life, all of whom I’d met there, very few I’d met in the physical world. I think I saw postdigitalism as the blurring of the lines between the physical and virtual, led largely by the development of Augmented Reality as a way to map the digital directly on to the physical. Many of us would spend our lives switching between the two, or having both simultaneously. I wasn’t the only one; Gartner (those of the hype cycle) predicted that 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) would have an avatar in a virtual world by the end of 2011. I had the idea that the change we’d all have to go through was to learn to blend the two, which I summarised in the phrase “mutatis metaxis mutandis”. Unsurprisingly, the phrase didn’t catch on. But neither did the technology.

We’ve passed that date and Google has just ended its Google Glass development; news reports are decrying it as a failure. No-one seem to have picked up on the value of AR overlaying information but have instead focused on the creepiness of surreptitious recording, and how nerdy Glassholes look. Many of the people I knew through SL are now gardeners, farmers, silversmiths, vicars, or working in international development. It’s not dead, but it’s not exactly thriving either. On the other hand, at every social occasion everyone gets their phone out immediately anything vaguely interesting happens, takes a photo then immediately uploads it to Facebook. They then check repeatedly on what comments have appeared and how many people have liked it. In that way at least the online digital space pervades our lives ubiquitously. On the technology –> tool –> prosthesis continuum, phones are a long way along the process becoming our physical extensions.

So I would say that the idea of the post-digital, that technology just becomes incorporated into our lives so much that we don’t notice it, is still an interesting process to look out for, and still has relevance as a term. It’s the point at which technology really starts to work, and so is unnoticeable, is when it really starts to matter to us. There are one or two technologies we can point to and say, “that’s invisible to us”, but that general transformation, to a postdigital society, or to postdigital humans, where technology truly becomes integral to us, now seems further away to me than it did five years ago.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Dave Cormier:  http://davecormier.com/edblog/2015/02/05/looking-back-at-postdigital-6-years-later

Richard Hall: http://www.richard-hall.org/2015/02/05/reflections-on-the-post-digital

Lawrie Phipps: http://lawrie.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2015/02/04/pd_review/

David White: http://daveowhite.com/post-digital-revisited/

On motivation

I’ve just started going to the gym again – after a break of more than a year. The reasons why I stopped were numerous, a combination of demands on time, travel and illness meant I was away from it for several months, then my membership lapsed, at a time when cash flow was a bit tight. But then I got over the illness, had more money, wasn’t travelling anywhere, so the only reason for not going was laziness. I’d keep on thinking I should go out and start again, but it was easier to do nothing, so I didn’t.

The thing is … it’s always easier to do nothing, the trick is, how do you persuade yourself to do the things that aren’t easiest? The motivation is there for me. Anyone who saw the #jiscexperts14 photos on twitter this week will see I’ve put on weight. One of my jobs is at Loughborough, which is a campus designed with sports science students in mind, so moving from building to building always meant me being out of breath. So increasing the motivation isn’t the answer. It’s maxed out already. I think the mistake made with encouraging change isn’t to find reasons to motivate, the solution is to find ways to reduce the factors that prevent action. The advice often given me was “find something you love doing and do that”. Well that didn’t work. There isn’t anything. Exercise is a painful, boring, uncomfortable experience.

So figuring out how to get myself to actually start doing exercise again, and reflecting what actually worked, I think has some useful lessons in general in how to get something done. So here are a few tips:

1) Exploit your weaknesses more than your strengths.
I’ve switched the time I go from the evenings, to the mornings. One of the advantages of working at home is that mostly I have the freedom to plan my days as I like. Beforehand my schedule was to start work about 9 or 10, then go to the gym about 7 pm. The thing is … I am not a morning person. I find the transition from sleep to awake a really difficult one, to the extent that people rarely expect me to form a sentence before about 11 am. Pushing myself to start work before my brain was up to the challenge was actually counterproductive. Also, I am a procrastinator, once I start I focus and keep going, but it can take me an hour or so of looking at what I have to do, getting up, making a cup of tea, sitting down again, reading news reports, before I start work. I cannot work on a laptop unless Facebook is blocked on it. Planning on going in the evening was therefore a huge disincentive, because going to the gym then puts off the time I can start relaxing. Going first thing in the morning puts off the time I start working. Which is far more appealing. I start later (so my brain is working) and once working I can keep it up until I’ve finished whatever I’ve started, and whether that’s 8 or 9 or 10 pm doesn’t matter, since I’ve already been to the gym. This also means the membership is cheaper. So … bonus.

2) Optimise your environment.
Gyms are awful, depressing places. They’re work, not fun. There’s no way round that. However, they’re made worse by the terrible music played there. So I make sure I’ve got plenty of music loaded on my phone to listen to. It’s surprised me how much easier it is to be in the place if I’m listening to .. say Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13 rather than Lily Allen. Plus my discovery this morning is that the track “Shouldn’t do that” is about the perfect one for the treadmill.

3) Have a system.
It’s very easy to go easy on yourself if you’re making it up as you go along. Thinking at any point, “what shall I do next?” can always be a prompt to the answer “Go home”. But with a set sequence of activities, treadmill, this bit of equipment, that bit, then that, in a certain order, there’s never any point at which you exercise exercise choices. I mean, apply choices about what exercise to do.

4) Build in slacking off into the system.
Having said that, doing the same thing every day or every other day is dull. Plus there’s nothing more motivating then feeling you’ve got away with not doing something. My problem is that if it’s up to me, I’d always get away with not doing something. Yryo Engestrom was a visiting professor at Warwick while I was a student there, and I attended a few of his seminars. In one of these he talked about handing over the decision to an external factor. So instead of saying “we’ve waited long enough, and going” if someone’s not showing, people tend to say “we’ll wait until 20 to, then go” – the clock then makes the decision. So, if someone’s on the equipment that’s next on my schedule, I’ll skip it. It’s a guilt-free way of slacking, but I’ve found really reduces the displeasure of going every day, because, randomly, sometimes the sessions are shorter. But I’m then not tempted to cut it short myself, which would just be the thin end of the wedge. I have found myself doing reps twice as quickly because the next bit of equipment is occupied and if I get to the end of the current one before the next one becomes empty I won’t have to do it, but it’s good to push yourself sometimes.

5) Have simple feedback.
It’s obvious the extent to which feedback is motivating. You get a bit better, it encourages you to do more. But I started off making this way too complex. 75kg weights on this bit, 25 on this, 30 on that. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of where I’m at. Simpler is to just have one figure and calculate the rest as fractions of that. So at the moment it’s 70kg on the leg push, half that for some equipment, a third for others. Hopefully as I get better that’ll go up. It’s limited by the one I’m worst at, but I’ve been able to ditch the spreadsheet and I just have one number to keep in my head each week, and at some point, surpass.

6) Have appropriate rewards.
I’d sometimes reward myself with a takeaway for having gone to the gym, which is really counterproductive because that would just mean the weight would go back on. Now it’s music, I reward myself with some more stuff downloaded or another CD, so I always have something different to listen to if I want it.

7) Know your limits.
I keep track of my heart rate throughout, at 51 years and 83kg I’m supposed to get my heart rate to 135 bbm. If it goes above 145 I stop. I’ve noticed above 10 bbm over I can actually feel really sick – so I make sure I’m never really that bad afterwards. There’s no way I’d keep going back if I felt that bad after every workout.

8) Push yourself, but only occasionally.
Increasing the amount I’m moving feels like I’ve accomplished something, but really, if I felt I had to accomplish something all the time, I’d soon feel under too much pressure, and that’s going to get me to quit pretty quickly.

9) Look for signs it’s having a beneficial effect
I can’t really say there are many of these. Losing weight is good (about a kilo a week so far). The only positive mental effect is that, whereas before going to the gym when I’d feel stiff and ache while moving around it was evident that this was purely because I’m in my fifties, now I can tell myself I feel like that because I’ve been to the gym. When I move and there’s pain I think “hah workout” rather than “agh I’m so old”. It’s probably a lie, but it’s one I can (almost) believe when I tell myself it.

How does this apply to education?
The key with all of these is to make sure I never end up hating it too much to go back, which is partly what happened last time. I think this is the central message. Unfortunately, the people who encourage others to take exercise are people who like it. These are the worst people to be encouraging others. You hear things like, “once you’re into it, you won’t be able to get enough”. This is a lie. Before I lapsed I went to the gym regularly for about five years. I hated it as much in year 5 as I did in year 1. It is always an unpleasant awful, soul-numbing experience. It can never be good. I resent my cardiovascular system for requiring me to do it. The trick is to reduce how depressing it is.

And out there, there are plenty of people who resent having to be educated. It’s soul-destroying for them. They haven’t found anything that switches them onto it. I’ve worked with NEETs on previous projects and have struggled to find ways to connect to them. Thinking about exercise, and how much I loathe that, but that I’m doing it, has started me rethinking how to address those who don’t like education. Perhaps people like me, who love being educated, aren’t carrying the right message to get through to them, because we assume at some point they’ll love it too. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at making education more appealing for those who don’t like it, we should be looking at ways to get students through how depressing they find it.

Acts of conscience

This possibly isn’t the right place to post this, as it’s mainly a work blog, but then, most of my clients ask for a statement on my commitment to equality and diversity, so the general consensus is that the two are intertwined. And this seems like the best place to vent.

What has me riled is this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-28206581 the “gay cake row”. OK discrimination is bad enough, but what has tipped me over the edge is the description of the bakery’s actions as an “act of conscience” as if somehow they are being punished for holding themselves to a higher moral standard than everyone else, rather than a lower one. Besides it really quite demeans the people who do act out of genuine acts of conscience.

No. That is not what conscience is. Conscience is refusing to do something (or setting out to do something) because it has a demonstrable and provable harmful impact on someone else (or, you know, the converse). And it usually demands some sacrifice on your own part. Without that evidential base what you are doing is actually blind prejudice.

The mistake they are making (and 30 mins giving a quick read round of anything on moral philosophy would have told them) is that purely using their faith as a guideline to their interactions with others is not on. People have a right to their beliefs, even to express them, and the world is a better place with people who have a range of worldviews and opinions, but those should only influence behaviour that has an impact on yourself. When you interact with others, the basis for that behaviour has to be something credible, i.e. evidence-based. And sorry to be the one to inform you of this if you weren’t aware of it, but religion doesn’t cut it. That’s pretty much the definition of faith – it’s evidence-free. So, if you want to campaign against gay marriage, go ahead, but first you need to do the research that actually indicates it’s harmful. Without that you can despise it all you like, but as a responsible adult in a rational world, you have to learn to STFU about it.

“The law is really clear. You cannot pick and choose which sides of the law apply to you.” one commentator has said. True enough. If you think the law is unjust, prove it. Then be prepared to suffer for opposing it. Don’t expect others to suffer on your behalf. That’s what acting from conscience demands. Which is another reason to be really sure you’ve picked the right side. Morality is like maths. You have to show your workings out. Otherwise you get no marks.

Media and AMORES

Elsewhere on this site you can read more about the AMORES project – it’s an EU project about encouraging a love of literature in students through content creation. I’ve not really worked with learner-generated content before, but after putting together a literature review on the pedagogy of it, have become really excited about the potential (I know – that’s entirely nerdy of me, becoming excited because of the theory rather than by actually seeing some examples of people actually doing stuff). Creation sits at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, the higher order learning skills it encourages build on and therefore incorporate all the others (I’m talking about the revised taxonomy now – the original one seems horribly dated to me – I like this: http://www.techlearning.com/showArticle.php?articleID=196605124) Seeing the videos the children are creating to introduce their schools is also a lot of fun. I’m feeling the urge to join in, although compared to the pool tables, gyms, saunas, concert halls etc. in their videos I’m not sure what I could show them. “This is the sofa-bed I work on – it’s in bed mode at the moment to provide enough room for me and all my notes to lie on. These are my cats. You will hear them if you ever do a phoneconference with me because they take it on themselves to purr down the receiver. Here is my coffee machine. This is the closest thing I have to a deity in my life.” Not quite so enthralling.

From a media point of view this post http://bblat.se/nyheter/koping/1.2496576-amores-ska-oka-elevers-lust-att-lasa shows how effective getting local media interested in your project can be – it’s a great photo, and also some excellent quotes from the teachers involved (thank you Chrome translate). Hopefully the other four schools involved in the project can do a similar thing and I can post those here too. I suppose I could go through Coventry Uni (my employer on the project) and do something similar, but I don’t think a photo of me on the sofa-bed would carry the same weight somehow.

First sight

This weekend’s Daily Post is called “First Sight” (Whether a person, a pet, an object, or a place, write about something or someone you connected with from the very first second) http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/first-sight/
I have two cats – one is a Russian Blue called Sina, the other an Egyptian Mau called Pasht. I’d had pets before, but not really deliberately gone out and chosen one. We had a family pet for a while when I was young, a dog when I lived in Seychelles who adopted me (she was a stray who lived around the block of flats I lived in and after I fed her she moved in, bringing her puppies with her), and a cat that I inherited when my friend emigrated to New Zealand. Meeting Sina was the first time I’d actually gone out and sought a pet. The idea of getting a cat was my ex’s. We’d split up and she’d known how much I’d loved my cat Gizmo (even though she died a few within a year of me owning her). I think she thought if I got a cat as a companion I’d be less inclined to relapse into needing her as a companion again. I went through lists of cat breeds and decided that Russian Blue was the one for me, found some breeders in the GCCF website and checked which ones near me had a litter due in the next few months.

I was the first of the people who’d booked a cat to go round there. Some people had been further up the waiting list than me, and had already said what sexes and how many they wanted, but they hadn’t chosen specific cats. I wanted to pick one out. Arriving there I thought maybe I was being overly anthropomorphosising – surely as long as it was a cat of a particular breed it wouldn’t matter.

I turned up at the house where the breeder had the cats and there they all were, six tiny little balls of grey fur, all identical, which just underlined how ridiculous I was being. I was sitting on the floor taking notes from the breeder about caring for them, registering them and so on, when one tottered over towards me and sat on my notepad. In the most annoying, awkward, imposing way possible and looked up at me. Richard, the breeder, who did seem to be able to tell them apart told me she was the one who liked to sit and watch TV. It was an instant connection. I wanted this one.

The breeder said that only two of the three females had gone, and so I could have this one. He put a small white collar on her so he could make sure she was the one I got when they were old enough to be weaned about 6 weeks later.

That was eight years ago. Two years later I got the second cat but the bond between the two of us has always been stronger. If I go away for a while my parents look after my cats. When I come back she runs to me and stays within a few feet of me for the next few days. She falls asleep on me. If I’m not in the room when she wakes up she starts crying and if I yell her name she runs up to me. When I’m away for the weekend after about a day I miss them both, but – like now – I’m looking forward to her curling up next to me while I read a book, or watch a DVD. And she’s there, watching it too, or getting in the way by sitting on the book.sina 060222