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.

Nomic crisis? What nomic crisis?

I had my Prevent training this morning – if anyone isn’t aware of that, it’s having the information anyone in education needs to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation. Slide by slide I felt increasingly reassured by what I was seeing. The first impression I had was that if you had the slightest doubt that someone might be falling prey to some dangerous ideology, then you had to report them. So looking at a few websites or watching a couple of videos was enough to warrant an alert, which would get them investigated. That seemed like dangerous territory to be getting into. By the end I could see it was more about knowing whom to contact if you had a real and genuine concern that something evidently was amiss with someone you knew.

And then we got to the final slide in which a theory of how people were radicalised was presented and the anxiety levels went way up. If this is how the people who are psychologically profiling people who are vulnerable to radicalisation view the world, then we all have a problem.

According to this theory, presented here https://www.libraryofsocialscience.com/newsletter/posts/2015/2015-04-23-Griffin1.html The first stage of becoming vulnerable to radicalisation is a nomic crisis.

If you haven’t heard of that, and I hadn’t, here’s the line of thought:

  1. “human beings (have an innate need) to feel their lives have a self-transcendent dimension and suprapersonal purpose”
  2. “This dimension or purpose is variously described in terms of religion, culture, totalizing value system, narrative arc, transcendence, sacred canopy” ie a nomos
  3. “Growing up in the absence of a fully-fledged, ‘solid’ nomos – as so many modern individuals do – can make them susceptible to the powerful negative emotions.”
  4. So if someone has a vulnerable nomos, then they will experience “a visceral fear of anything that threatens the coherence, vitality, or self-evidence of the nomos.”

I think that’s what the theory is. Re-reading it now I realise the argument could be that because of the innate need of humans to have a purpose and meaning, that anything that threatens any nomos could lead to violence, because we need them so much. The guy who wrote this is at Brookes, so maybe there could be an opportunity for him to explain.

In fact Terror Management Theory http://www.deathreference.com/knowledge/Terror_management_theory.html says that it’s any nomos that can lead to a nomic crisis. In fact TMT has bollocks in it too, for example “Self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful.”

If it is, then we are all fucked, because you will never be a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful. Because it isn’t.

However, the most obvious reading is that it’s the absence of a solid nomos, rather than someone having a nomos at all that makes one vulnerable to a nomic crisis. Here’s the problem with the theory as I originally interpreted it (which I’ll assume is the correct one, otherwise this will be a wasted opportunity for a rant).


Our lives are meaningless. The Universe is an unfeeling chaotic set of physical processes that have no regard for us, or our existence. And we all need to learn to deal with that fact.

Sure we have a biological imperative to feel that we matter. It’s a pro-evolutionary characteristic. A tribe of homo erectus who had a shared belief system and unwavering adherence to it was more likely to survive, so more likely to reproduce, than one that didn’t, so we’ve emerged to feel that. That doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, it’s far more likely to be a bad thing. Look at all the other pro-survival evolutionary characteristics – eating, reproducing, harbouring resources.  Our base drives now end up being harmful because they’re about ensuring we survive at the cost of others who don’t share our genes. We have our intelligence to surmount them. In fact if you want a list of our pro-evolutionary characteristics you really need look no further than the 7 deadly sins. Add to that the need for to believe in something as the 8th one.

If a nomic crisis leaves us vulnerable, then the answer isn’t to have a solid nomos, it’s to learn to live without one. It’s to learn to live with the truth, not to come up with a consoling lie. We should be teaching our students that it’s OK to have no meaning, that there really is no point to our existence. And that’s OK. Deal with it.

I got taught that. I got taught that by George RR Martin.  I’d figured out  around the age of 10 (pretty much from first principles) that religion is a bunch of made up stuff. Four years later I was still looking around for something else instead when I came across The Way of Cross and Dragon. This is the paragraph that I took to heart and we need to make everyone aware of.

“The Liars believe in no afterlife, no God. We see the universe as it is, Father Damien, and these naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring.”


If we’re looking to graduateness, if we want the next generation to be fully functioning and productive members of society, then there is nothing we can do for them that is better than ensuring they do not need a coherent and fulfilling worldview. It’s surplus to requirement.

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

You don’t need to be.

Elements of a TEL strategy pt 3

So we’re now down to the final five.

11. Provide blended and online learning options

When I was doing the mapping between the Jisc NUS tool and the Brookes TEL framework, I linked two principles, from the tool: “Provide online and blended options where they offer genuine enhancements” and from the framework “Learning, teaching and assessment at Oxford Brookes enables all students to reach their potential and does not disadvantage any groups of students.”

This might seem like a bit of a fudge, but actually when you unpack the two principles, there’s a lot of coherence.

A strategy needs to enable students to overcome the access issue, access not in the sense of making all content of use to students when they’ve got to it (i.e. screenreadable for visually impaired students, captioned for deaf students, and so on) but access in the sense of enabling all students to get to it in the first place. With constraints of geography and time, not all students can engage with all aspects of face-to-face teaching, so providing an online version of all the teaching, so that students can mix and match as they need to, reduces this disadvantage. As with the other sort of accessibility, though, what supports the most disadvantaged students actually helps all students. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that because online content reduces this access barrier, it always offers genuine enhancements.

12. Digital identity and well-being

Identity leads of from the concept of citizenship and community, but is fundamental to the online experience. Knowing who we are when we’re online is informed by what we understand of digital citizenship, and most social theories go into some depth about how community roles and identity complement each other. Supporting students to develop an identity as a learner helps them with their learning, supporting them to develop an online identity helps them with their online learning, and stands them in good stead for life after university.

Digital wellbeing might be a new one for most people, but it makes sense that we also need to work out how to encourage students to take care of themselves online, and the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool also lists knowing when to switch off amongst its student experiences. I summarised digital wellbeing in one seminar as everything from cyberbullying to lumbar support. The latter particularly weighing on my mind at the moment as I’m typing this standing up through not paying enough attention to my posture while sitting for too long.

 13. Virtualisable transformative learning spaces

The Brookes strategy has a line in it which says “The University will continue to develop and exploit the potential of digital and physical learning spaces, and will encourage and support staff and students in partnership to find different ways of using these spaces effectively and creatively.” As I mentioned in a previous post, in parallel to this work, I was also working with a group of academics who were interested in benchmarking these spaces. People contributed ideas (specifically Kathrine Jensen, Liz Falconer and Andrew Middleton – let me know if I’ve missed anyone out) and then Richard Francis and I organised them into a whole.

What we ended up with was a matrix in which each row followed a constant theme, and not only that, each one actually fitted in with one of the other principles of the matrix. We could have added these to the separate principles, but the response we got from the other people we showed an early stage of the matrix to was that they would find it more useful if it was kept in the format of the Jisc NUS tool. In the hope that if we made it useful for them, they would be more likely to contribute content, we went along with this, and just added this as a 13th principle.

Linked Good Practice Principle  First steps  Developing  Developed  Outstanding
7 – Support students to use their own devices for learning (Bring Your Own or BYO) Classroom activities that include use of personal mobile devices for individual use. Classroom activities that include use of personal mobile devices for collaborative activities. Group work spaces, flexible furniture and shared plug-and-play screens in classrooms. Use of augmented reality approaches in co-creation and collaboration.
8 – Provide a robust, flexible digital infrastructure Classroom and meeting environments for cross-site meetings.
Develop and maintain experimental teaching spaces
Classroom environments for satellite classrooms, online DL, conferences, symposia etc.Experimental teaching spaces available to all staff. Fully integrated participation of co-located and distanced participation in class activities. Fully integrated participation of co-located, remote and virtual participation in class activities.
9 – Communicate with students about their digital experience Convene a learning spaces development team to ensure joined up approach. Extra-curricular spaces and networks established / encouraged.
10 – Use digital systems to build a sense of belonging Performance art, e.g. drama performances, fashion shows, craft exhibitions. Students’ interaction / dissemination to professional / educational networks Students developing and sharing their work in open online spaces, using appropriate open licenses, tagging and engaging with relevant communities outside the university (e.g professional, arts, etc.).
11 – Provide online and blended options where they offer genuine enhancements Field trips to physical and virtual spaces.Guest visits to classrooms through remote access. 3D virtual space replication of physical space activities.

Augmenting of physical environments with virtual attributes, eg.data visualisation etc.

Practice-based activities in virtual and remote environments such as law courts, forensic examinations, psychology counselling, laboratory work. Integration of virtual and physical spaces, via augmented reality technologies.

14. Assessment

Assessment is covered in the Jisc NUS tool but is separated across the other principles. In the DC matrix we just link to a search on the term. The Brookes strategy however, adds assessment as a separate principle.

I think assessment affects TEL in two ways. One is that it offers a lot more flexibility and robustness to assessing the usual stuff. You can use online submission – which is more admin than TEL, but it does enhance the student experience to be able to just send an assignment in by clicking a button, rather than print it out, stick it in a folder and travel somewhere to stick it in a box. Particularly if you’re doing this at 11.59 p.m.  And then GradeMark and TurnItIn and so on. You can do computer-aided assessment like multiple choice, which then means you can do formative assessment more easily, and gamify it if you’re into that sort of thing. Formative assessment is also excellent for making sure that students do the preparation if you’ve gone down the flipped classroom route. If you don’t pass the online quiz on the content, you don’t get to go to the class.

What’s maybe more interesting though is how TEL then affects what you assess. If you have online forums, to which students contribute, how do you assess the contribution? If they can submit multimedia content instead of essays (number 3 of this list), do you know how to assess them? I’ve produced a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B036xtd0d_4 summarising these. I produced it for the Teaching Online Open Course that I’m a tutor on at Brookes. For Brookes. I was actually on the top floor of the Hyatt in Kathmandu when I did it, you might be able to hear the altitude in my narration. I know … Grant Morrison has a transcendental epiphany involving rippling, dribbling blobs of pure holographic meta-materials, angels or extraterrestrialswhile in Kathmandu, which led him to write The Invisibles, and I create a video on online assessment …

 0. Staff development

Also not included in the original Jisc NUS tool (because it’s not directly related to the student experience) but is in the Brookes TEL strategy is the principle of staff development. The Brookes strategy states “All staff who support learning participate annually in collective professional development to ensure that their practice is evidence-based, informed by the scholarship of learning and teaching, and employs up-to-date learning tools and technologies.”. As the starting point for putting the Digital Choices matrix together was to come up with a staff development programme for TEL, we obviously had to add something on this.

As mentioned in a previous post, the idea is that we have a zeroth principle, sitting alongside all the rest; teachers come for the ideas on improving the learning experience, but stay for ideas on how they can repurpose this for their own professional gain. We’re assuming that there may be different reasons for developing practice, they might need to boost their experience to get their HEA fellowship (or associate fellowship if they’re not directly connected to teaching), or they might want to use their teaching development as a basis for research, and to get published. Or they’ve been told to by their line manager. The professional development strand is there to support them through whatever they need.


So that’s what I’ve been able to glean so far from a comparison of the two frameworks. There’s some small differences, but overall most of them match. It’s interesting that independently, the same basic principles emerge, and I wonder if those themes are present in other strategies, or if there’s some that both have missed. There’s obviously some overlap between some of the principles, but overall they seem to be discrete identifiable aspects of the TEL experience at HE. So far, anyway.

Elements of a TEL strategy pt2

I should point out that I’m doing these in the order that they’re in the Jisc NUS Digital Experience Benchmarking tool, as that would be more helpful to anyone looking at that for more detail. You’ll notice I’ve split these posts into fives, and there are twelve principles in that tool, which means there are three extra in these posts. All will be revealed in the next post.

6. Access and inclusion

In this category I mean access in the sense of enabling equity for people with disabilities, access in the sense of people being able to log on comes later. This one is a no-brainer though, and shouldn’t really need any clarification. One thing though, if you think assistive technologies are just for people with disabilities, you probably ought to take a look at the work of TechDis, or EA Draffan. Technologies that I first encountered through working with students with disabilities, actually make life more useful for everyone, or at least offer people more choice and flexibility. For example, podcasts – really picked up first by dyslexic students, and those with visual impairment, but a great source of learning. Listening to audio books on your walkman was pretty much the first instance of mobile learning. Having everything readable by screen readers for example, and making presentations available in advance, doesn’t just help the students who need it read on their devices, it helps everyone.

7. Augmenting the physical environment with technology including BYOD

As I said in the last post, some elearning strategies I’ve seen have equated “technology” with “VLE”. I think we’re getting away from that and the idea of using technology in the classroom, for people to interact with each other in different ways, and with online content is making more of an impact due to devices like the smartphone and tablet. Of course an immediate reaction to these sort of proposals is “but they don’t all have them”. I’m not sure what is the most appropriate ethical response here – do you impair all students’ learning because you can’t provide the same experience for everyone – is that better or worse than introducing a disadvantage? Although of course there’s always disadvantages between students. Not all will have the text book. Some will have a disability. Some will have a better social life so be there with a hangover. We’re just introducing one additional inequity to the prevailing mix of scores of inequities, but it gets noticed because it’s new and shiny.

8. Providing an appropriate infrastructure

Technically, maybe, not TEL, references to this aren’t in the Brookes TEL strategy for example. Providing an IT infrastructure is the role of the IT department, not the pedagogues, but the reality is that if you divorce one from the other, things aren’t going to work so well. Ideally, decisions about what to support are made for pedagogical reasons, so the supported technologies are those that lecturers need, not what the IT department think are appropriate. This isn’t necessarily the way things work out though. Being able to just rely on WiFi and the VLE being up, and having a power socket within reach when you sit down don’t just happen, but people expect them to. The problem with IT infrastructure is that when it works you don’t notice it, when it doesn’t it does. But then, that’s fair enough really. It’s the same with oxygen. The Brookes IT strategy has a great line – “Systems that just work”.

The Jisc NUS tool calls this principle “Providing a robust, flexible digital infrastructure”. I’m not sure that’s the goal really. One of the important things to do as a teacher is to innovate, and that means adopting new technologies, and often when we do so, we don’t get the support we need from the IT department, because they’re focusing on keeping the basics running. Robust and flexible are, (with limited resources) mutually exclusive. I’d like yes, most of the effort in making the basics robust, but with a bit spare for looking at the flaky flexible stuff that maybe doesn’t always work.

9. Understanding digital citizenship/rights/responsibilities

This is a bit trickier a principle to really pin down than the last one. The Jisc NUS tool labels this as “Communicate with students about their digital experience”, Brookes expresses the goal that “Students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning, to engage actively with feedback and assessment, and to develop their own justifiable ways of thinking about and constructing their view of the world.” When you unpack these, there’s stuff around understanding plagiarism, intellectual property and netiquette, but also where to go to for support and including digital issues in the curriculum. This also includes students engaging with their own digital support, so being polled about how effective the other 14 principles are being conducted. For Brookes I added a line to the DC matrix that “Students develop their view of the world through global digital citizenship.”. This probably needs summing up better than I’ve done here, but strategies need something in this field, understanding what it means to be a participative responsible student (initially) when online, but ultimately a citizen. This links also with the idea of digital wellbeing (number 12) and segues nicely into …

10. Creating and supporting digital communities

If 9 is a theme on supporting students’ understanding of what their role is as netizens (perhaps abstaining from painful portmanteau neologisms could be one attribute we should instil in our graduates), 10 is about enabling them to participate fully in online communities. Both the Jisc NUS tool, and the Brookes TEL Framework have this as their tenth principle, and the wording is very similar. One summarises this as “Using digital systems to build a sense of belonging”, the other says that “We will provide the digital environments and technologies that enable students easily to create and support their own groups and networks comprising Brookes students and staff and relevant groups and individuals.” Retention of students is highly dependent on the students’ feeling of inclusion, and providing the right platforms for them to communicate with each other, and with the institution, can increase this. Communities extend outside of the institution too, and creating effective links through these can enable transition to the students’ lives after graduation.

Elements of a TEL strategy pt 1

In the previous set of posts on the process by which we developed the Digital Choices Matrix at Brookes I mentioned how part of that process was mapping the Brookes Technology-Enhanced Learning Framework to the Jisc NUS Digital Experience Benchmarking Tool. The plan is that Brookes staff come to the site via the principles of the Brookes framework, and are then redirected to the appropriate bit of the tool. The DC Matrix is the Jisc NUS tool with a couple of things added. Other institutions can then adopt the Benchmarking tool as the same back-end, but similarly their front-ends would be their own TEL strategy. Or whatever.

Mapping the two though, was surprisingly easy because, although developed separately, if you’re looking at the student digital experience (which is what both the tool, and the Brookes TEL framework are based on) you are going to come up with similar things.

This post, and the several following it, are really just commentaries on that mapping process; the bits that were the same and why they were the same, and the bits that are different.very superficial oversimplifications, but I needed to reduce these down to top-level descriptors to get an overview of how everything fitted together, and found it helpful. Maybe you will too. If not just move on, there’ll be some rant about what grinds my gears along probably in a while. It’ll help to see the details too and you can see the principles in the Jisc NUS tool here repository.jisc.ac.uk/6140/1/Jisc_NUS_student_experience_benchmarking_tool.pdf

  1. Preparing students for study

This is the first principle in both frameworks. These are generic skills that students need to have throughout their lives, but also particularly while they are studying. This is partly about accessing information, but also about being able to build up the networks that will be useful in engaging with communities, both of their peers and external organisations. Both strategies note that this process starts before induction because ideally you want the students to know who the other people are on their course before they start. Social media is very effective for this.

2. Providing the skills they need for their course

This is the second principle in both frameworks. This overlaps a lot with the first, but is mainly about making sure students have access to, and training in, the specific programs and equipment they need for their subject discipline. A note on IT strategies in general. I’ve been asked to look at a few, and about half make the same mistake, of equating TEL with online, or even worse, with VLE. Technology has a hugely wider range than that, and most of the interesting stuff is actually what happens in the classroom when you add technology.

3. Using technology to bring new experiences to courses

This isn’t about making helping students with technology that they already know or need to know. This strand is about making more multimedia content available, representing material in ways that makes it more accessible, or understandable, to students, or more interesting and engaging. Enabling students to create multimedia content during their course (irrespective of what their subject discipline is) also makes it more engaging than just more text again, although is a lot more work. When I was teaching physics, a simple flash animation of magnetic flux cutting an induction loop would have saved me hours of trying to explain something from just drawings. But it wasn’t around then. When I taught theatre studies using Second Life, being able to take students on field trips around the theatres they were studying, or staging Shakespeare on an actual (well virtual) Globe made the subject come alive in new ways.

4. Prepare students for the digital workplace

I’ve worked a lot recently with online collaboration as an educational process (I have a book coming out on it early next year) and students see the skills that are acquired through working in remote teams, for example, as being enormously useful. It’s a huge motivator. Unless they’ve actually come from industry in which case they see it as completely irrelevant. However, we’re teaching for how things will be, not how they are, and all the signs point to remote working and collaboration being a key aspect of many sectors. Ensuring activities students engage with will enable them to develop these sorts of skills is enormously helpful. Probably. Even if it turns out to not be the case, it still makes life a lot more interesting.

5. Provide access to digital content

When we’ve worked with Academic Liaison Librarians, this is the aspect they’ve focused on. Well, they’ve been engaged with all the aspects, but this is the bit that they feel they own. This is mainly ebooks and journals, and the citation indices that help you find them, but could be VRML models, useful apps and so on. Imagine a class where everyone downloads an app to their phone and walk around wearing google cardboard headsets – like looking around inside a body or something. How cool would that be?


Changing the student digital experience pt 5

One thing that developing a framework does is enable you to see more clearly where there are gaps. Sort of like Mendeleev and his periodic table. Putting the 13th principle together with the in-between spaces group, and then mapping what we came up with to the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool showed that those categories overlapped with the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th principles of the tool. Which then raises  the question, what about the overlap between blended coalescent spaces and the 12th principle, ie digital well-being?

It’s not something we were focusing on but it is a key aspect of introducing blended and virtual spaces – there are a range of different elements to digital well-being that only emerge when we start transitioning between physical and virtual spaces, or merge the two.

To some extent, this is relatively advanced stuff compared to just regular looking after yourself while online, but virtual spaces usually require an avatar for interaction and that opens up a whole new area of digital experience. (Augmented reality too, although perhaps this isn’t so much digital well-being as physical, inasmuch as watching where you’re going when you’re hunting Pokemon.)  One of the things that emerged when I was looking at virtual worlds is how the sense of presence exposes the user in ways that don’t occur when you’re a disembodied presence in a forum.

One of these is presentation of self. With the whole variety of choices available to you, what you choose has a big impact. Do you choose your physical world sex for your avatar? Do you choose your physical world gender? What if those are different from each other? Do you want to take the opportunity to explore identity by adopting a different ethnicity, sex, species? Will you expose yourself to hostility if you adopt an animal avatar, or a mechanical one? (I spent a lot of time in Second Life as an airship – that got some weird reactions. Though the spider one was the only one that generated outright hostility).

If we as educators introduce virtual worlds to our students, there is some responsibility for their continued interactions with virtual worlds, even outside of the learning situations. If they’ve become interested, and developed an online identity, as a result of our teaching, they may decide to continue and explore more. And there’s some weird stuff in there, which they need to learn to ensure they’re comfortable with before engaging with (or perhaps be resilient enough to be OK with being uncomfortable). That level of embodiment also enables people to form relationships, and there can be a mismatch between the significance that people attach to those. Which can lead to people being hurt.

There is reputation management too. If you want to be taken seriously in online interactions, maybe a giraffe isn’t the best choice of avatar. But then, I did get to know one academic simply because he and I were dressed as punks at an ESRC event in SL when everyone else was in suits. So representation of self is something to be consciously engaged with, and many people first entering virtual worlds tend to be oblivious to the relevance of avatar design.

At the moment, perhaps these concerns aren’t huge ones for educators, but at least we know where to put them on the site once we do start thinking about them.



Changing the student digital experience pt 4

Soon after these rounds of consultations, the three of us working on the staff development site also were asked to redesign the Brookes virtual landing page. This is a sort of portal into all the support for technology that staff might need, and is actually the most visited page on the Brookes site. At the moment it mainly links to information on the tools – but we also wanted to integrate the student digital experience advice too. I think this is part of a larger, maybe even ideological, issue with technology-enhanced learning. It’s often seen as an issue of just getting the kit working, what plugs into what and what button to press. I think the pedagogical issues are far more important, such as what is the student supposed to get from it? what teaching skills are needed to ensure it is used effectively? This is partly because this aspect gets overlooked and yet has a huge impact on the learning that takes place, and partly because this is the bit I get paid to do and I want to keep my job. However, it is fair enough to say that getting the stuff to work is probably what people focus on first.

This then leads into the fourth design principle for what we’ve put together:

#4 Integrating as many different perspective into the tool as possible (alternatively: keep as many people happy as possible).

The gateway has gone through some re-designs but essentially it has always aimed to do two things;

  • provide a point of entry for people who know what technology they want to use, but not how to use it in parallel with a point of entry for those who know what change they want to make to the student digital experience, but not how to achieve it.
  • keep the CPD angle in the forefront of people’s minds, by having links to advice on how to do it throughout the site.

The structure then, looks like this (there are more options within the technologies and CPD sections, but if I included everything it wouldn’t fit on the post.

TEL gateway

The structure of the new Brookes Virtual Gateway

The other aspect is how to provide the filtered view. Applying the general principle of keeping as many people as possible happy, we also wanted to have explicit links to Brookes’s TEL framework. This was an ideal opportunity to do both simultaneously and have the different views match the different lines of the framework. The assumption being that if the TEL framework is successfully implemented, people will need advice based on whichever line of the framework they’ve been tasked with implementing, and the DC matrix would then provide the right targeted help.

There are 12 principles in the Brookes TEL framework, and 12 in the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool. 8 of these actually map pretty closely with a one-to-one correspondence. I can post about this in detail if anyone is interested. There’s also a line in the Brookes TEL framework on assessment, which is split across many of the benchmarking tool’s principles. So 3/4 of each framework is actually very similar to the other.

This made creating the filtered views very simple. All that was needed was to come up with a question that reflected both the TEL framework principle and the corresponding Jisc NUS Benchmarking tool principle; the user of the site picks the question that most closely matches what aspect of the student digital experience they want to (or have to) develop and this will link them to the right grid in the DC matrix. That grid then shows the complete range of components that address this experience, divided into levels of complexity, with links (eventually) to resources and examples of good practice that support that particular component.

One thing, though, that the TEL framework has focused on, which the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool hasn’t is the idea of transformative, mixed, coalescent spaces. When adapting the DC matrix to take account of this, we had the thought of adding to each of the existing principles. The reaction from the community was not to mess with it, though. So instead we’ve created a 13th principle (otherwise the filtered view would link to a blank page).

Before getting to this point in the development of the DC matrix though, I’d already worked on putting together something similar, as part of a group set up by Katherine Jensen at the University of Huddersfield. She’s interested in these sort of in-between space , and set up a Google hangout on the subject, inviting me, Andrew Middleton, Liz Falconer, Catherine Cronin and too many others to list here (but who don’t read this blog). Andrew, Liz and others contributed to putting together a set of benchmarks for people to progress through if they are thinking of developing these sort of spaces. We adopted the First Steps, Developing, Developed and Outstanding categories as they’re useful for structuring thinking about benchmarking, and I half-expected it might be useful for the DC matrix.

Richard also realised that it would be useful to show how these cross-referenced to the existing principles. Between us we tweaked and merged the grid the Google hangout group had come up with, to produce the grid below.

13th principle

We’ve tested this out a couple of times already, with workshops called Course Design Intensives. These are similar to the Carpe Diem sessions run at Leicester and the CAIeRO sessions at Northampton. A group of people from a programme team get together to discuss the issues they are facing with the programme and between us we resolve those issues. We’ve actually found it more useful to have programme teams from two different faculties simultaneously, as the cross-fertilisation between the ideas being generated adds a lot to the process.

The DC matrix has proven really useful in terms of that initial breakdown of the student experience. When a question crops up such as “but what are the digital literacies we need students to know for their course?” we can just click on the right principle, and there’s the answer, subdivided into various stages. All we need to do now is open it up for everyone to start submitting their examples and resources for how to achieve those stages.