A Blank Page

The title is an homage to this blog http://ablankpage.org/hopes-and-dreams/#more-1 Which I’m finding a particular source of inspiration and reassurance atm. The author is one of my “sort of god-daughters”. “Sort of” because the nature of the relationship is the same, just without the god bit. I’ve known Helene 22 years (since she was zero) as her mum is one of my closest friends. She started the blog when she realised that she had no idea what was coming next in her life, and found that both intimidating and liberating.

At the end of last month I found out my contract at Brookes isn’t being renewed. I knew the contract was coming to an end, so have applied for a few other jobs (unsuccessfully), but moving¬† on was always Plan B as I’d hoped to segue the temp job into a permanent one. I’ll have been doing the HE academic role for 20 years this year, and was anticipating finally to be able to get a permanent job by now.

I think the problem is the area that I’ve chosen to specialise in. There’s a process in developing online learning by which you start with the subject matter expert, have them discuss with a learning developer the various ways they can support the learner and make the learning interesting and engaging while online, and then recruit an instructional designer to do the tech bits that are required in putting it together. Three step process – SME -> online learning design specialist –> instructional designer. My plan was that as online learning becomes more widespread, that middle link role will become more needed and I’d be on to a winner. It made sense to me. Someone with the experience of working with lots of other SMEs will be able to bring ideas across disciplines, have an idea of what works and what doesn’t and can easily link to the broader scholarship in the field.

In retrospect, yep that’s one way it could have gone, but the other way, the way it has gone, was just as predictable. In essence, as online learning becomes more widespread, the experience of teaching online has become more common, and so people at both ends of that process have developed enough experience of that middle step of the process to not need someone who specialises in it.

In short, according to people I’ve spoken to, I’m brilliant at what I do, but no-one needs me to do it.

I’ve been at these sorts of crossroads before. I first started out wanting to be a scientist, I studied astrophysics, but found I didn’t really have an aptitude for it. Basically I liked the pictures, but couldn’t do the maths. However, the other thing I liked, writing, in combination with science, lent itself to science journalism.

So I went into science publishing, getting a job with ESA and then British Gas, thinking from that I could get into Nature or New Scientist or something. Not a great move. Turning up at the Nature offices for an interview, with three years’ experience of writing about gas cookers under my belt, was not the most confidence-boosting of encounters. Realising I was at a dead end with that career I opted for retraining. The only grants GLC were handing out at the time were for nursing or teaching, and not being able to handle blood or poo, I went into teaching (which luckily has been free of both of those things).

That worked out for five years. I taught physics and (as I also did an MScEcon at the Cardiff School of Journalism) taught media studies as well. Plus I was then also a trained journalist and had picked up some small bits of work in that field. Teaching got me to Seychelles, which was cool, particularly as while there I met Helene and her mum. The problem was that, by the mid-nineties, the FE sector was changing. Universities were beginning to recognise BTECs and other qualifications for entry. Suddenly you didn’t need to do A levels any more, there were less academically-orientated qualifications that would do just as well. All of the job ads for physics teachers required a background in teaching BTEC. All of the job ads for media teachers required a background in working in the media (and something a bit cooler than writing about thermostats and bains maries for three years and an unpaid job in a magazine and a radio station). Working overseas didn’t help either. In some countries overseas experience is seen as character-building, adventurous, open-minded. In the UK it’s seen as frivolous.

But, while looking for a teaching job and being unemployed for nearly a year, I got an admin job working for a friend of my mum’s for six months at Wolverhampton Uni. The six months became a year, then two, the admin job became a research job, then an elearning research job, and thus a fourth career was born.

However, with each career change, I was either looking for the next one, or looking to continue a current one when another one sneaked up on me.

This time I have absolutely no idea. Which feels particularly rootless. A bit like amnesia in the other direction. Each time I try and grab onto an image of me in the future, of what I’m doing, it sort of swims out of my grasp. I really have no idea.

I’ve got stuff to do. Start going to the gym again, sort out my sciatica, finish writing my novel, do a course in music production (which I’m just starting to get into), I have a backlog of books to read, I have a comics collection to sell on eBay. All of those will keep me busy. None of those will earn me money though (well the comics might fetch a few hundred). I figure I’ve got time in my working life to squeeze one more career in. I just have no idea what it could be though.

Challenges of using educational technology

Just another one (still procratinating about those 200 unread emails) a response to this http://digitalliteracywork.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/the-6-biggest-challenges-of-using-education-technology-edudemic/

From the point of view of someone who used to be in staff development for educational technology I think the mistake we make is to focus on showing people how to get the technology to work, and not focus on showing how best to use the technology. Frankly anyone who’s alive in the 21st century should not need to be shown how to upload files, click on the right link, install software, call up a skype ID or any one of the numerous things I was asked to show. We should take digital literacy for granted from professionals. If you don’t have it, f..k off and get it, then come back to work. There is nothing that can’t be picked up on one’s own with an hour or so of playing about with it. I mean … really this is ridiculous what we allow lecturers to get away with not knowing and what we feel obligated to provide for them.

What we should be focusing on in staff development is showing what the amazing new pedagogical things we can achieve with the use of technology are, and what the skills and techniques that make best use of them. Inspiring people, or even just giving them a few ideas, is enough to get them started.

Where we really let them down though is in the fact that the technology doesn’t work in the majority of cases. PCs in lecture rooms that take 30 mins to boot up, or don’t have the right drivers to run USB sticks, firewalls that block access to Skype or Second Life. IT suites lacking the minimum spec graphics to run even the most basic virtual world platform. Admin rights jealously guarded and with no-one on hand to install the software needed. The horror stories heard about insufficient IT support for lecturers continue to do the rounds. It’s no wonder that people are put off from implementing new forms of teaching when it’s a constant struggle to get anything to work. Once tried and failed (in front of a room full of students) it takes a lot of courage to give it a second go.

eLearning Today

There’s been an interesting discussion happening on the ALT forum recently about the use of the term eLearning. As a senior research fellow for elearning at Coventry Uni (actually I think I might be THE senior research fellow for elearning at Uni), I don’t actually have a problem with the term. Yes I know people have preferences for Technology Enhanced Learning, or Technology Supported Learning, but really these are just labels. As long as we all have a general idea of what we mean by the term, it’s trivial to get hung up on labels.

The more interesting debate though is … what exactly do we mean by the term? And also, do we really need it anyway? Ask most people and it’ll be something to do with computers and technology and education, that sort of overlap. It seems pretty arbitrary though which technologies are included. I’d put LMSes (or VLEs if you prefer, but I think the US label describes what they do better) in the category, and videoconferencing, but not word processing, or spreadsheets, or even photocopiers. And if you look at Vygotsky, Leon’tev et sec and their stuff on mediating artefacts, then they’d argue that anything, a blackboard, a book, even language, is a tool which we use. For a lot of people it begins and ends with their institution’s VLE. But I like what can be done with getting students producing video so would add that.But not watching video … unless it’s online and linked in to discussions or learning content … :-/ it’s a blurry line.

Looking at the distinction between which tech I mean when I talk about elearning, I realise that it’s no more a really strict defining criterion than “things that I didn’t use or see being used in a classroom during my PGCE”. Since I finished that in 1989, that’s a lot of stuff. One of the outputs of The 52 Group (a think tank of academics pulled together by Lawrie Phipps, though small enough for me to instead refer to it as a ponder pool, there were only 6 of us) was the concept of postdigitalism, that digital technology now is so commonplace that we should no longer see it as distinct from anything else. That makes a lot of sense to me.

And yes, there are a lot of other interesting innovations in learning that can excite people. Activity-Led Learning is taking off in a big way in my faculty, led by my erstwhile fellow Teaching Development Fellow there, Sarah Wilson-Medhurst. Some fascinating stuff, so eLearning isn;t distinct because it’s innovative.

The discussion then is, do we need a separate label for what is, really, just another form of teaching. Is there anything distinctive about eLearning or can we just dump it as a concept?

I think one thing we can agree on though is that the technology ultimately, is not what eLearning is about. At least those of us who do it can. There was an interesting debate at the Oxford Union on eLearning a few years back http://bit.ly/Ym2pAz 2009 to be precise, with Diana Laurillard¬† on whether eLearning can meet the needs for tomorrow. There did seem to be some confusion there about the term, with those arguing against believing that “The e-learning of today was not all things e and learning; for the majority, it was much more limited, it was e-courses for compliance and basic knowledge acquisition”. Errrm no, that may be the view in the private sector delivering computer based training (if you look at the magazine for the industry called Elearning today it’s largely appalling … lots of ads proclaiming “content is king”) but for the rest of us it’s about bringing people together, about find new ways to get them to think and to engage with material, and new ways to express themselves. Content is cheap, most places will give it away, it’s teaching that’s important. Dave White did a study looking at the optimum ratio of online tutors to online learners. Errm I can’t remember the optimum number, but I do remember the maximum was 30. The idea that eLearning provides a pile em high, sell em cheap solution is erroneous.

It still gets trotted out as a reason to do it, or not to do it though. On one project I worked on which was making academic tutoring accessible over videoconferencing, a tutor refused to take part, complaining that introducing technology was symptomatic of capitalist … blah blah blah, … he referenced self-service checkouts and god knows what else. The reality, that whether you’re delivering it face-to-face or over the internet, you still have a one-to-one interaction, so aren’t actually cutting down at all, completely failed to make a dent in his knee-jerk reactionism.

The other extreme from seeing technology as some sort of neocon bogeyman is seeing it as a solution in itself. The most difficult part of staff development in eLearning is people seeing you as someone who just shows them how to use the technology. a number of times I’ve met with a lecturer who wants to use a technology, I’ll have shown them how it works, then arrange to meet them to support them with their teaching. That meeting gets cancelled, they go ahead and use it, and when it all falls apart, because they haven’t realised they also need a new set of skills to make use of it they seem surprised and either reject the technology or make a big deal of learning from their mistakes. Errrm no, the bit you skipped is precisely what my role was. That’s the interesting bit.

And I think that’s why I think eLearning is a recognisable and distinct thing, and why it fascinates me. Because of that step in the process. Yes I agree that, ultimately eLearning is just a form of learning, the pedagogy comes first, in as much as that is the goal. I wrote about this nearly 10 years ago now in http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ldc/resource/interactions/celi/chap7/article2/childs which was originally titled “Is there an e difference?” (see what i did there?). But the skills that need to be learnt to use it effectively in learning and teaching, how accomodating and exploiting what technology does alters our practice, that’s what’s interesting. Josie Fraser makes an interesting point about the idea of putting the pedagogy first. Yes of course, she says, that’s ultimately what the point is of eLearning, but it’s not as simple as knowing what you want to do and then finding the technology to do it. Her point is that it’s a two-way street, understanding and knowing what the technology can do opens up new areas for learning.

And technology does change us, as we adapt to it as much as it adapts to us. It’s a mechanism for social, cultural, physical change more than anything else, (other forms of innovation notwithstanding). It has the specific forms of problems noted above (seen as bogeyman by some colleagues, and the change it requires in practice overlooked by others), it has a specific set of selling points to colleagues too (use of ICT always looks good on an OFSTED inspection), but I think it requires that adaptable, explorative and (I’m going to say it) transhumanist perspective to exploit if fully. And, really, to be honest, the bottom line is that it’s about playing with all the shiny cool stuff.