14th Blackboard Users Conference ticks the boxes and hides the car parking bay

Conferences are always valuable opportunities for reflecting on practice and networking with like – and lesser like – minded people. The 14th Blackboard Users Conference at Durham University 9-10 January ticked all the boxes, including one for the most hidden parking place ever (if you get Bay 25 I’ll give you directions but it’ll cost) – not to mention the challenging climb between car and the Calman Learning Centre. Working at Durham would be all the training I need for Camino Santiago next year. Must practice on Lincoln’s Steep Hill more often!

The Blackboard Roadmap was a useful presentation by Jim Hermens Rather than words, the key future developments are shown in images below. Intended more as a personal memory aid than for publication, but for the sake of clarity I must sit closer and use less zoom next time 🙂

Eportfolios continue as hot topic. The problem seems to be searching for a one size fits all solution when it might not exist. If anyone can find a workable answer you’d think Blackboard would have done so but it’s clear from the road map they haven’t stopped trying.

Lots of interesting ideas to think about with much context to reflect on. Conferences are a bit like teaching and learning. Doing it virtually is not the same. I’ll get the information from the conference website but it won’t be like being there. You can’t replicate the chance meetings or the buzz of an interesting presentation – yet face to face is more transient. Here today, gone in 50 minutes, the inspiring lecture or seminar is over and it’s back to virtual reality for capturing the experience and making it available 24/7. It’s clear we could do a lot more with Backboard at Lincoln. It could look different and have wider functionality. As the future signals change for how teaching and learning is resourced at the university, this is also an opportunity to look ahead in virtual terms. The past two days have offered lots of ideas. Thanks #durbbu 2014 – it was a good one 🙂


Winter solstice – where science and culture merge

Frost patterns

Winter is the time of alternative beauty. I love the patterns of ice. The cold chills and I miss the sun on the allotment but there’s one more task to do; I always cut my grape vine at this time of year.

grapevine in autumn

The tradition of pruning on Christmas Day is based on science. The wood should be cut when the sap is not rising and the coldest, deepest part of winter is the solstice around 21/22 December.

Astronomically, this is the when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. This is also science. The earth takes approx 365 days to travel the ecliptic orbit around the sun. Every day since mid summer, in the northern hemisphere the sun appears to rise about 1 degree further south of east. This weekend the sun will appear to rise at the same point for three mornings; days are short, nights long, darkness appears to have overthrown light. Then – on 25th December – it rises one degree north of east and the celebrations begin. The sun has risen, been reborn, returned, light of life, conqueror of darkness, sun of god. Winter solstice is where science and culture merge.

sunrise over the humber sunrise

In older times, the movement of the planets were interpreted as a celestial clock marking the optimum times for planting and harvesting. Some people still garden by the moon, many following the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Again this is science. No one can deny the gravitational pull of the moon on the tides so the relationship between planting and lunar phases makes sense. As the levels of ground water in the soil are pulled upwards during the full moon this is the optimum time to plant. Seeds and seedlings reach for the light and benefit from increased hydration. Cutting, pruning and harvesting all depend on the type of plant but it’s a biodynamic fact grape vines bleed so should only be cut when the risk of infection and death is lowest.

moon planting

Too often the older wisdoms have become lost. This is sad because we all need ways to connect with the earth beneath our feet. I like the space at the end of the year when email goes quiet and I love swapping presents with friends – but don’t buy into the surface presentation of self decking the halls in glittered tinsel. Holly and ivy is fine, tied with red and green ribbons, and never have artificial lights been so easy and pretty. See, I’m not all bah-humbug! My perfect day is on my terms. For me this time of year is about taking advantage of the lull to look back, look forward and take the opportunity to be myself. I love Christmas but I love it for the deeper significance of the turning wheel of the year. Best wishes for 2014. Blessed be.

flaubert's parrot

“Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.”  Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot



image of planting http://www.pottingblocks.com/product_images/uploaded_images/planting-moon-phases-751×507.jpg

Staying human in the age of the machine…

sunrise over the river humber

The the new academic year begins. The days shorten. I see the sun rising as I drive across the Humber Bridge.  It makes everything ok 🙂 On the allotment I’m pulling up plants and digging, getting ready for the winter.

Commuting and digging offer head space. I’m thinking about technology. What it means to be human in an age of the machine. It’s a pragmatic reflection. I spend too much time online. Too many hours connected to the internet. I think I may be addicted to google. Instead of exercising my brain to recall a name or place, I search for it instead. My browser history bears witness to cognitive laziness.

This new academic year will see the implementation of a digital education strategy for the university. Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) will run again. I will live, sleep and breath virtual reality. Open educational resources, inclusion, digital divides, eportfolios, shared communities of practice – I love it but I also worry I ask too much, the university asks too much, we all expect too much of what at the end of the day is a machine.

Soon I will be inviting staff who teach or support learning to give up an hour of their time to talk about digital education. Technically it will be an interview and be recorded. This is my data collection but I think of it more as a conversation about the relationship between humans and their digital technologies. I want to ask practical questions like:

  • Why do we need to reinvent lectures for online delivery?
  • How would you define being digitally literate?
  • What can the university do to support your virtual learning?

I also want to know how how the internet has impacted our lives as well as our careers and professions. If we stop to think about the difference ICT is making; the divides it’s creating, the shifts in practice required by unprecedented access to knowledge, or is it information, or is it someone’s unsubstantiated personal opinion.

Saljo says ‘…[digital] technologies do not merely support learning: they transform how we learn and how we come to interpret learning. The metaphors of learning currently emerging as relevant in the new media ecology emphasise the transformational and performative nature of such activities and of knowing in general.’ (Saljo 2009:53)

I want to create space for conversations about the future implications of the internet for the university. There are calls for flipped teaching but how can this happen when lectures last 50 minutes and are delivered to 100 plus students?  How can time and space be reinvented to suit an alternative education – a digital one? Where technologists across the sector lead on policy, how can non-technologists keep up? What happened to MOOCs. Why don’t we talk about accessibility any more?

These are the limitations of face to face communication compared to the timeless boundary-less landscape within my laptop. What does it mean to stay human in the age of the digital machine?


Saljo, R. (2009) Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, (2012) 26, 53-64


Interrogating TELEDA – for better or worse…

This research should not be about ‘teaching educationalists to use technology’ but being critical about the role of the university as a site of knowledge production and negotiation. HE is accommodating new technologies but of necessity the process needs to be critiqued. (supervisor feedback earlier this year)

After a summer of discontent with theory, I’ve decided where my research is located; it will be pedagogically as much as critically informed.

The relationship between the university and learning technology is open to critique but my research remains within the discursive practices of ‘teaching educationalists to use technology’. Digital-first policies are increasing pressure to shift to blended and distance learning. There is an urgent need to find ways to adapt traditional lecture and seminar formats to online delivery. Not the passive transmission model of powerpoint and word repositories, but the building of genuinely experiential learning based on shared practice and collaborative group work. Time to argue about the politics of alternative technologies is running out. We need to make better pedagogical use of what we already have; to reinvent design and delivery which supports critical thinking and reflective practice while acknowledging internet access is changing what it means to know and to learn in a digital age (CIBER, Wolf, Saljo) Ecology as well as pedagogy is required.

I get nervous about calls for a radically different approach to education. While agreeing the need for curriculum resilience within fluid knowledge landscapes, I have less confidence in alternatives such as Edupunk’s contested DIY model as portrayed by Kamenetz  Pathways and guidance might be more effective than freedom in an unfettered internet. Rather than move away from the university in Edufactory style,  my research will investigate how to do different and better with what is already in place. Revolution is not the only response.

TELEDA was designed to be progressive. Resources include signposts towards critical pedagogy and social inclusion, learning activities are collaborative and communicative and technology is presented as potentially divisive. Participants are continually encouraged to consider inclusion.  My approach is embedded in existing critiques of technology for learning. These include Feenberg’s call to analyse technologies as historically situated (1999) and restructuring the dynamics of technological design and development as social and political processes (2005) and Selwyn’s theorising of educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concern (2010) Time again this summer I’ve returned to Foucault and distributed flows of power through discursive practice. I’ve discovered the places where Giroux has applied postmodern ideas to teaching and learning and where education represents the practice of freedom and a pedagogy of hope (Freire, hooks, Giroux). The work of Warshcauer, Seale, Selwyn and Facer, van Dijk and Seyeart on critical approaches to digital divides and exclusions continue to inspire me.

My PAR will interrogate TELEDA, for better or worse, It will focus on how virtual engagement for staff and students need not represent the automation of teaching but offer support for the higher level thought processes integral to a university education. Here I find Friesen’s critical approach to the myths of elearning and the work of Reeves and Harrington on research into learning design to be useful. The growing recognition of space between the rhetoric and the practice of elearning (Conole, Oliver, Feenberg, Reeves, Harrington etc etc) is supporting a rethinking of the translation of subject disciplines from the face to face to virtual design and delivery. Reeves et al suggest six possible theoretical bases for this research. I have chosen this one

‘Researchers with postmodern goals are focused on examining the assumptions underlying contemporary educational programmes and practices with the ultimate goal of revealing hidden agendas and empowering disenfranchised minorities. Although increasingly evident among researchers with multicultural, gender or political interested, research in the postmodern tradition is rare within the field of educational technology.’ (Reeves et al 2010: 60)

So here it is. For over 20 years I’ve worked with technology for education. I was there at the beginning – from pre internet to dial up, MOOs and MUDs to Second Life, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook.  I’ve lived and breathed in the spaces between the rhetoric and reality of virtual learning. Those spaces are now being made public and while the critique is essential, so is the need to find new ways to move forward. I believe this research will combine all the essential elements. I’ve gathered the work of critical theorists who speak of social responsibility and inclusion and am ready to construct my PAR framework for establishing a foundation for truly inclusive virtual teaching and learning, one which may appear more pedagogical than political but which nevertheless enables the rethinking required to build progressive online higher education appropriate for a digital age.  


see PhD page for full references

Not with a bang, not even a whimper.

On Friday 30th August, it all came to an end. The University of Lincoln Hull Campus closed. Its final year in rented space on the University of Hull campus finished.  Nothing seems to have marked the occasion.

So… lest we forget

The University of Lincoln has history north of the Humber. It’s heritage is a direct line to the Hull School of Art which opened in 1861.   In 1976, the School of Art merged with other colleges to become Hull College of Higher Education. This became Humberside Polytechnic, gaining university status, between 1990 and 1992 when it was known as the University of Humberside.  Renamed the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside in 1996, it became the University of Lincoln in 2001.

  • The Virtual Campus – precursor to Blackboard, Web CT et al – was built there, pioneering the concept of virtual learning environments long before they became famous.
  • Work Based Learning was developed there.
  • Achievers in Excellence and Aim Higher set the standard for widening participation with local schools and colleges.
  • Getting Started began on the George Street city centre campus.

Colleagues with memories longer than mine will no doubt remember more than I do. Please feel free to comment.

So many people like myself were supported to return to education at Inglemire Lane and Cottingham Road as well as Queen’s Gardens and the Old Town.  Our lives would be very different without the opportunities to study and develop in these places.

I feel sad to know it’s all come to an end, not with a bang, not even a whimper.

The E word as in E-learning – what does the E stand for?

Electronic is the commonest answer. Which is misleading. It implies the two go together when they don’t; electronic has nothing to do with learning. elearning requires a new pedagogy. An inherent problem is the way existing educational theories have been moulded to fit.  They won’t. They can’t. Not only does face to face practice not sit well within virtual environments, to create workable online educational experiences is to accept the reality of elearning engagement is the diametric opposite to how elearning has been presented.

Conventional rhetoric tells us elearning has the power to transform. The HEFCE ‘E’ could well include easy, efficient, effective, extended, economic – effortless? I made that last one up but the promotion of elearning as the answer to reducing costs and doing more for less implies a seamless transition from the traditional classroom to a virtual one. The anomaly – and the true reality – is elearning means increased costs and doing much much more – in terms of the design and delivery of learning activities as well as the technical, administrative and professional support systems which are all part of an effective elearning framework.

What would I call elearning?

Enigmatic? Exacting? Exigent?

The complexities of managing online learning are enormous, even Elephantine – as in the problem of the Elephant in the room. The resourcing the time, space, place and skillsets – all essential components. The real costs of elearning are so big no one dare address them. You could call it Expensive learning. Without a dedicated team containing a blend of technical and pedagogical understanding of digital literacies, digital scholarship and digital ways of working, elearning will continue to appeal to a narrow student base, retention will remain poor and the quality of online resources be an ongoing cause for concern.

As if this were not enough, elearning privileges those with means of access and the capability of using that access appropriately. If you are limited by an outdated browser, run an old operating system, live in an area with a poor connection speeds or depend on assistive technology, elearning will be problematic.

Out of all the possibilities the biggest e of all remains E for EXCLUSIVE.

Contemplating Failure Part One

Screech, scratch, scrape – this is the sound of the soap box being dragged out again. For years I’ve been a lonely voice for digitally inclusive practice. Advocating the TechdDis Accessibility Essential series for making electronic documents more readable  http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/techdis/resources/ae  Supporting the principles of inclusive practice as improving access for all. In the beginning I’d be encouraged by all the ‘I never thought of that’ comments but recently I’ve begun to feel a failure – because nothing’s changed.

Being resilient is what matters. Equality of access to communication and information technologies matters. I’ve tried to adapt. One of the learning outcomes of the new Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age online course (TELEDAPG http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/cerd/teaching/teachingpractice/) is

‘Reflect on and demonstrate a critical awareness of inclusive practice on relation to inline teaching and learning resources, communication and collaborative working with and between students.’

Here is an opportunity to give the soapbox centre stage on a validated teacher education programme. My phd is moving towards the inclusive practice aspect of digital literacies and scholarship with the opportunity to develop a participatory action research project on, in and around the subject of digital inclusion.

But on the outside nothing’s changed.

The editorial from the Journal Research in Learning Technology’s special edition on digital inclusion (Vol 20 2012 available free online http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/issue/view/1432) starts optimistically. It identifies how ‘current digital inclusion research has failed to produce a detailed critique of what constitutes empowering support from educational institutions and their staff’. How the ‘lack of open and reflexive accounts of practice’ is hindering identification and understanding of the ‘essential empowering practices’ which are so necessary for challenging  the prejudice, stereotypes and risk-aversiveness – all of which contributes to digital exclusion. Here is the language of my sessions with staff and students on the values and ethics of a digital society but the ultimately the Journal only points out old problems and suggesting new solutions – calling for a ‘bolder approach’ by policy makers and funding agencies – precisely because so far nothing has changed!

The reason for this blog is the UL HR elearning packages. It got off to a bad start with the image on the Portal page https://portal.lincoln.ac.uk/C11/C0/Online%20Training/default.aspx Here is an example about nothing changing. Text over images is never good practice – especially when advertising ‘e-learning!

example of text over an image in a poster


Looking at the Staff Learning and Development Poster page http://posters.lincoln.ac.uk/group/sld it seems this one slipped through – or looking at the dates on the poster archive page – may be the sign of things to come.

examples of poster design

Could I suggest the use fo text over images quietly slips out again or the new designer visits http://odi.dwp.gov.uk/inclusive-communications/channels/publishing.php for some useful guidance on creating accessible posters.

My sense of failure was heightened with the new e-learning package Bribery Act &/and Anti Money Laundering (I hate ampersands!) Faced with the question of taking time to highlight the issues or ignoring them – I decided to take time out to climb on the lonely soapbox and register another solitary protest.

See Contemplating Failure Part Two…http://suewatling.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2013/08/01/contemplating-failure-part-two/

TELEDA Learning Block Two: Connectivism Summary

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age banner

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) Learning Block Two Discussions were based on Connectivism by George Siemens (http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm). This  paper suggests digital networks are making fundamental changes to education and new theoretical approaches are required.

It was clear from responses, the world has changed less than Siemens would like us to believe.  Education has always been an evolving discipline, one which has taken advantage of ‘the technologies of the time’ and while Siemens’ ‘networks, chaos and complexities’ may be useful ways ‘to identify some characteristics in the digital age’ you see many of the features of connectivism as already part of our learning designs.

the chaos is life(!)’ A fantastic way to describe the complexity of day to day living as well as teaching and learning in a digital age. Problem-solving and decision-making are long standing examples of ‘networks of learning’ and ‘thinking, reasoning and reflecting’ are still essential. There was consensus attention to digital literacies.  Students believe the net holds all of the information they could possibly require’ and resources will be available at a click of the button or by typing the question into a single search box’ The critical issue being‘They might find the answer… but do they understand the answer and how to correctly apply it?’……‘Context is king!  So cue the tutor…’ Exactly!  In this age of MOOC the role of the tutor remains vital because the knowledge base is increasing at an amazing rate but just how much of that “knowledge” is real thing?’ students need guiding and supporting students to make the ‘all-important distinction between knowledge and information. Otherwise known as wheat and chaff.’  The problem can be a mix of resources and attitudes ‘…some teaching teams don’t have the time, and sometimes the inclination to change the module guide, to reflect on what tools are available to enhance the learning experience in their subject area.’

Conversations showed how the risk over exposure to virtual worlds is leading to lack of confidence with real world. Many students need more encouragement and help with the social skills…[the]  natural interaction that students miss because of all the social media’. Here is the irony of teaching and learning in a digital world – how do you achieve the relevant balance digital graduate attributes when students need to be skilled in all the social media because it plays such a large role in people’s lives? The internet is a technological product of our time. We only have to read The Printing Press as an Agent of Change by Elizabeth Eisenstein (1980) http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Printing_Press_as_an_Agent_of_Change.html?id=5LR1SrkIrocC or The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (2009) http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Victorian_Internet.html?id=vPVbi6GVodAC  to see how the inventions of the Gutenberg Press and the Telegraph did not happen in a vacuum. Instead they evolved out of the social conditions of their time amid a mixture of much contemporary alarm and excitement; just like the internet in 21st century!

However, the internet poses challenges across the sector. On the one hand students (and some staff) may appear cyborgs, permanently connected to their mobile devices, and the quality of that interaction may suggest they are ‘amusing themselves to death’ (see Neil Postman’s analysis of television culture on 1980s America), but on the other it’s clear how making the shift from face-to-face to virtual interaction is one which needs prioritizing and resourcing rather than taking for granted online learning design is absorbed through some magic process of osmosis!

For summing up, I couldn’t say this any better.  Firstly with regard to learning theory for a digital age: ‘The characteristics of connectivism theory already exist….Perhaps we just don’t call it connectivism’  – excellent insight – but the most important point of all: However, we do spend a great deal of time ensuring that they [students] know how to deal with human beings – they are still the ones that really matter.’

Says it all!