PhD crisis: what value can be extracted from failure?

PHd crisis? I don’t think I can manage another one 🙁 The process of narrowing down my research focus is taking forever. I’ve enough dead ends to populate a cemetery.

The solstice is coming. The coldest, darkest place in the year. This is the time…. for reflection. Reading my PhD log back to 23 January 2013 has depressed me. It confirms the absence of essential literature on digital pedagogy and staff development.  Surrounded with piles of books I haven’t read, and hundreds of thousands of words I’ll probably never use (I am prolific in one area at least), my reflection on the year’s progress isn’t reasuring. In spite of evenings and weekends of clandestine relationships. Me and my laptop. Me and the internet. Me and the accusations – Oh god, you’re not working again.

A year of trying to find myself philosophically. I have to face facts. My PhD has got lost. I need to rethink and restart.

My research is like water. It spreads. Isn’t contained. I may have said this before. For the past year I’ve been trying to get a foothold. An ontological and epistemological position. Some of it has been positive but I haven’t got there yet. My feet are still looking for their philosophical standing place.

Positives include rediscovering postmodernism. When academics began their deconstruction of reality, the internet didn’t exist, Today digital reality is endemic yet few people talk about postmodernism.  I’d like to apply a postmodern lens to the presentation of self online, to reconstruct my 3P model of Professional, Personal and Public identities, but this would be a research byproduct, not the primary function.  I need a practical solution to embedding research into my practice.

Times change. I shifted my PhD focus from the community (year 1) to the HE sector (year 2) to my practice (year 3). Maybe I wrong footed myself from the start because with every passing year the panic has increased. Maybe I’m simply not good enough. I wanted a research topic which informed and enhanced my practice. What’s wrong with that? Not finding my doctoral feet feels like a failure. I’ve read the books, gone to the workshops and study schools, but still can’t find a fit. I talk about digital exclusion and people switch off. Maybe it’s the way I say it. I don’t know. But exclusion and its invisibility is my thing and at the start of this year I thought I’d found a research space to slip into. 

With regard to teaching and learning, I knew engagement with a VLE was an under-researched area. The VLE is unpopular, maligned as clunky and linear, unfairly compared to more visual software like Wordpress, used predominantly as a document repository and largely ignored as a tool for enabling and enhancing learning. Embedding virtual pedagogy into my PhD would not only shift my practice from being research-informed to research-engaged, it would show case the VLE’s pedagogic potential. I’m pragmatic. I work in the present where the application of theory to practice matters. As does the day-to-day experience of staff and students doing the best they can with the tools they have. 

Recent discussions around digital education and the VLE at Lincoln seem to confirm I’ve got lost in the PhD landscape – again. The sense of loss is reinforced through Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) which stretches use of Blackboard and reminds me of a need to embed digital literacies into staff development and teacher education as well as the curriculum. This is where I want my research to be focused but I’m not sure how to get there. My action research methodology needs grounding in the relevant literature. It’s looking like I need the end of year break to begin a new review with a focus on staff development in higher education, on the pragmatic and pedagogical aspects of digital education rather than the political. What value can be extracted from failure? Once more, I’m about to find out.  

Hello laptop. Hello internet. Do you come here often?

Revising the myth and reversing the risk of the digital native

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) begins with a reading of Digital Natives Digital Immigrants. Written in 2001, Prensky’s paper offers a provocative but enduring image of technology as the agent of changing brains and behaviors of young people. I’m interested in the persistence of this myth of the digital native. In particular the conceptual leap it assumes between access and understanding. It reminds me of the medieval helpdesk video (2.44) direct link

I like the line at 1.38 ‘When you’re used to paper rolls it takes some time to convert to turning the pages of a – book.’ Consider the conversion from pen and paper to a keyboard and screen. Technology is about people not machines. the problem is those promoting machines forget they’re the minority.

Put the word native into a thesaurus. It offers citizen, inhabitant, dweller, resident. Language is like yeast. It grows. Meaning can be cultivated but the surrounding conditions must be right for change. Today the term native can be defined as to live in one place, to be positioned or located. Today we are all digital natives. One way or another we engage with technology.  Prensky’s distinction needs revision.  The dividing lines have changed.

The physical ability to use a computer and access the internet, the cognitive knowledge of how to maximise usage and stay safe online are 21st century literacies. Society evolves. It rarely jumps. The gap between Gutenberg and Google is not so wide after all. They are different ways of doing the same things. Communicating. Disseminating. Excluding. 

The risk of the myth of the digital native is less about young people born into a technology enabled world, it’s about what happens when they grow up. It’s less about education having to shift its parameters to cope with changing brains and behaviours. It’s about remembering and respecting human diversity and difference. The risk is those who work with technology are losing this memory. As Prensky’s digital natives become creators of 21st century reality, the risk – where technology is concerned – is they might not have the memory in the first place.

If technology has a prominent role in your life, and the lives of family, friends and colleagues, you become protected behind digital walls. This digital closeting prevents you from seeing how the daily struggle with technology is the rule not the exception. This is particularly evident within higher education where those who teach and support learning are employed for their subject specialisms not digital literacies.

Prensky calls for the world to adapt to the requirements of the digital natives but I think this needs to be reversed. Those born into the world of google specs not gutenberg text, whose digital parameters mean they’re unable to see beyond a browser window, need to go and talk to real people face-to-face and find out how the other half live.

Half? Maybe more. Those for whom technology is a daily challenge and struggle probably accounts for most of us.


Crap City Chav City City of Culture! Bring it on ‘ull @2017Hull

map of Hull c 1640

This blog post will come as no surprise. Hull won City of Culture 2017 and I’m feeling local and proud. Hull had an excellent chance. It has heritage and history in buckets and its solid working class tradition makes it one of the friendliest places in the world. It was unfair in 2003 when Hull was named number one crap town. The headline stuck, even when it had dropped out of the top 50. To gain City of Culture represents a turn in public opinion to be proud of – but no surprise for those of us who call it home. Hull has a lot to offer and it’s about time we got chance to show it off.

Hull is what it is. A town on the mid-north eastern edge of England. Geographically unique, situated in the basin formed by the Humber and Spurn Point, Hull’s history is the wool trade and fish, There isn’t much left of either. You have to travel to Grimsby to visit the Fishing Heritage Museum but it’s well worth the journey. You’ll find a mirror of Hessle Road and the docks which gave Hull its reputation and infamous smells. The trawlers have gone but Hull lives on. As the promotional video states, Hull belongs to everyone

I’m loving the attention. It makes a change to see positive reports after decades of negativity

I like these:

My favourites include:

The bottom line is – Hull’s unique. Our accent and dialect set us apart as much as our location.

Examples of Hull dialect

Crap Town, Chav Town, now we’re going to be Cultural town – and about time too. We can hold our own with anywhere else in the UK; we have the Museum quarter, High Street, the Deep, Town Docks Museum, Ferens Art Gallery, Fruit, the university, college and more. Bring it on and let’s hear it for ‘ull!

The presentation of self online: why google is your best friend

image of social media logos

Every year I revise my sessions on digital identity. There is always something new to say. Last week two students from Chester misjudged their choice of fancy dress.  Without social media this one night in their lives might have gone unnoticed. Now potential employers putting their names into google will see information not included on any CV.  The incident has gone viral. All around the world. While some media commentators blamed the DJ for awarding them first prize, thereby increasing the chances of publicity, others have been scathing about the young women themselves.  It looks like poor judgement rather than any in depth intention to offend but the damage is done.

Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life was one of the first to suggest social identity is a performance. Like actors on stage, we wear costumes, have fixed props and adopt roles. Through these roles we present ourselves as having a specific persona which in turn is recognised by others. From here it is a small step towards attribution and stereotyping whereby assumptions are made based on appearance.

Goffman was writing long before personal computers and the internet but I find his work useful for considering the presentation of self online. Digital identity is something we don’t take seriously enough. In an increasingly digital society, turning to the internet is one of the first steps taken to find out more about other people. What turns up can be a surprise. I advise students to google themselves. It isn’t being egocentric or narcissistic. It’s a 21st century necessity!

Problems are caused less by the information we put out there and more by what other people do with it. I take in horror stories from the Daily Mail. Not because I’m a DM fan but because it show students the reality of personal information going viral. The accidental email sent to all rather than one person, inappropriate comments forwarded on, a holiday photograph shared by a Facebook ‘friend’ or simply stupid behaviour which pokes fun at vulnerable people. Whether innocent or cruel, once online it’s permanent. Our digital footprints are impossible to erase. Dressing up as the twin towers might not have been the best career move but will always be a useful reminder of the perils of presenting the digital self online.


Image from

Two-tier tourism; King Tut’s tomb to be (or not to be) real

The picture on the right is the original tomb, the one on the left is the replica.

The picture on the right is the original tomb, the one on the left is the replica.

King Tutenkamun’s tomb is being recreated. The copy will be next to Howard Carter’s house on the hill at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.  Initially tourists will be asked to choose which one to visit; the real or the fake. I wonder how many will make the journey to Egypt then opt to visit a replica of the most famous tomb in the world, when the real one remains open less than a mile away. The intention is to protect the original, damaged by the impact of tourism. It makes sense to appeal to the fragility of ancient burial sites, sealed up with the intention they would never be visited again, designed for darkness. It also raises questions about the difference between the real and the imitation.

In France the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux were discovered in 1940 and opened to the public in 1948. Visitor exposure created rapid air change. Body heat and breath were blamed for rapid growth of fungal mould threatening the 17000 year old pigments. The caves were closed within 15 years and the replica Lascaux II built nearby. Tourists can experience the colour, size and impact of the paintings without damaging the quality of the original.

prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux

What happens next? Maybe a tomb or cave for tourists to visit which isn’t a copy of an original but a synthesis passed off as authentic. Here is a way to alter history. A gradual seepage from the real to the artificial, in the name of preservation, with visitors no longer knowing the difference.  Signs and simulations encourage us to feel we familiar with places and people we know nothing about. Consumers are saturated with media images of significance rather than substance, continually pressured to buy a product or engage in activity for what it represents rather than what it is. I think visiting a replica must be preferable to not having access at all. Education substantially depends on text and images which are facsimiles. I’d visit Lascaux II for the experience and probably not over-think the reconstruction. Soon I won’t even have to go to France because there are talks about Lascaux III which will go on tour.

I’ve stood in King Tut’s tomb and doubt the ability of any fake to replicate that sense of awe. Tut is a plain place. The tomb of Ramses VI is far more visually stunning. With Tut it’s the history which bestows the meaning. Knowing this is the place where the most fabulous of all Egyptian treasure was found. Authenticity like this can’t be duplicated but authentic experience is not sustainable if it risks destroying it. There are no easy answers; least of all what happens to the original? Preserved and protected, visited by a privileged few, secreted away behind locked doors and security systems. What price will be put on an original experience? Sounds like two-tier tourism in the making.

TELEDA; an exercise in the pedagogy of uncertainty

As the TELEDA Induction period comes to a close, the discussion forum is feeling the linear stretch. Participation has been high. It’s a long way to scroll down on a single thread. Future discussions will use different techniques but colleagues don’t know this yet. One of the intentions of TELEDA is to explore Blackboard; not only the hardware itself but the ways it’s used by colleagues on the course. There is no one size fits all model. We are as different online as we are off it.  The aim of TELEDA is enhancing teaching and learning – like the old TQEF mantra for those who remember the days of the Best Practice Office – but it’s not without risk.  New course nerves are high. I know what lies ahead but colleagues don’t. I know the different effects the learning blocks aim to achieve and how activities are structured to demonstrate poor practice as much as good – we learn as much from errors as successes – don’t we? 🙂 but at the moment no one else knows this. There’s always the risk of the risky going wrong.  

The pressure for retention and completion on blended and distance courses is high. In spite of elearning’s failure to live up to its rhetoric, the echo of the promise remains. MOOC are creating renewed interest in blended and distance delivery but e-paths are strewn with lost intentions.  ppt and doc files don’t constitute motivation and excitement. T&L can be difficult to achieve face to face – online they’re ten times harder. Blackboard can’t smile or be empathetic. The human aspect of teaching and learning is seriously challenged by digital technology.

I hope TELEDA – with its stress on experiential learning – shows what it’s like to be a distant student with all the work overload, competing priorities and inevitable technology blips (these are not intentional I promise!) I hope the potential for loneliness and frustration is balanced by an eclectic mix of resources and the sharing of practice through discussions and activities.  I look forward to seeing how the interaction on the first learning block develops. One thing I’ve learned about having your own programme is you can’t see it for the first time. Like missing your typos when someone else spots them immediately.  Writing online resources is like authoring a paper or a poem. You reach the point where you have to let go.

TELEDA is an exercise in the pedagogy of uncertainty.  I can’t predict participation or responses to my methodology. Staying out of the online introductions was deliberate. I worried it looked like I was ignoring everyone when in reality I’ve read every post and journal and found it hard not to respond to the funny, relevant and thought provoking comments. What will colleagues do in their own practice? Will they join in the initial introductions or stay away? What was it like to go into an online discussion for the first time? How can you design for students unless you can walk in their shoes?

On the cusp between Induction and Learning Block One I’m holding my breath, looking forward to summarising the induction discussions, commenting on reflective journals and getting in there. This is TELEDA on Blackboard. An experiment in teacher education. An idea which, with the help of PGCE tutor and colleagues, grew into a pilot and is now standing on its own digital feet, raring to go.

Fighting poetry and phd – I’m never sure which side I’m on

Silhouette taken in St John's Baptistry, Florence, October 2013

Septet is seven poems of seven lines, each with seven syllables. Today is 31st October. Hail All Hallows Eve – let the shadows through…


October is the gothic
month. Mildewed roses blacken
Squash cords rot on frozen earth.
Death is wearing tatty rags.
Petals droop while pumpkins glow
and crisp swarovski spiders
spin out crystal studded webs.



Hail All Hallows Eve, when the
sun shrinks and cold space between
the living and the dead fades
to gossamer. Iced air chills.
Veils shiver in the dark, as
ghosts stir, waiting to be hailed
and summoned by the living.


The wheel turns. Icy Mabon
fingers shred the veil between
the worlds. The dead look through the
ragged space, once kissed faces
grey as mould, drained of blood, search
for lovers lost, pleading eyes
desperate with impunity.

Come back my love, look I’ve set
a place for you beside me.
Here are your favourite things, and
see, I’m wearing all the clothes
you liked the best. Come back to
me tonight, let me see your
smile and touch you once again.

Sprinkled with frost diamonds the
earth sleeps, its cold, quiet rest
undisturbed by growth, only
brassicas bear witness to
the intricate complexity
of sugar-peppered iced loam
topped with tiny cabbages.


Wet snow kisses melt like dreams
which fade on waking. They say
every flake is different,
and I try to understand,
but the uniqueness of each
complex shape escapes me,
like your presence in my dreams.



This is the time clairvoyants
turn to paisley curls of frost
for divination, or skry
flicking flames of fire as they
invoke salamanders to
their charge, and demand they bring
the sun inside for winter.



Something about this doesn’t feel right

Student Union breast cancer awareness event

I’m all for fighting cancer but something about this breast cancer awareness activity doesn’t feel right. It could be the generation gap I’ve been fighting since my children became teenagers.  Or maybe I’ve gotten older than I feel without realising it. All I know is this image of four young men competing against each other to eat a breast-shaped cake the fastest, hands free, to gain the title Boob King is discomforting.  Partly, it’s the wrongness of all-you-can-eat food competitions. A quick Google search will return a host of them. But there’s another layer which bothers me. It’s to do with the signification of the words. This isn’t being pretentious about language; it’s the way media promote cultural ideology.

The female body is currently undergoing objectification in a way not seen since the 1950’s backlash against women. Rosie the Riveteer, the symbol of women’s liberation in WW2, was pushed back in the kitchen, her waist squeezed in, breasts stuck out and independence crushed under the weight of domestic appliances and patriarchal attitudes.

 Rosie the Riveteer   advertisements from 1950's If your husband finds our advertisement  advertisement - don;t worry darling you didn't burn the beer

We see a 21st century version of this  control over the female body with the cult of celebrity thinness; the promotion of unrealistic and false body images – most worrying is the current obsession with post-baby skinniness. It isn’t natural and ultimately it can be dangerous for your health. 

Reading Man vs Boob in the Lincolnite made me realise I’m out of date on the charity front. Younger people reading this will think I’m out of date full stop,  When I worked for British Epilepsy there were a handful of ‘big’ names.  Content management systems mean smaller organisations with smaller budgets can now have a prominent web presence and it’s interesting to examine their ‘newer’ identities. The name of a leading charity for penile cancer is The Testicular Cancer awareness charity is Compare this to the name of charity behind the Boob King event I know I’m years from their target audience of 18-30 year olds – I have children older than that – but I remember when the expression ‘copping a feel’ was something you wouldn’t hear anywhere other than behind the bike sheds. 

I know about breast cancer and the importance of early discovery. If this event saves the life of one person it will be worth while. I’ve attended too many cancer caused funerals not to support anything which raises awareness of this devastating disease. If I’d passed the SU event I would have donated – but there ‘s still something about this which worries me.  Of course, an equivalent held for Testicular or Penile Cancer awareness with four young women competing to eat the appropriate shaped cakes would be ok – wouldn’t it?  



TELEDA begins; teaching and learning in a digital age

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) is the university’s first online teacher education programme. It offers 30 M level cats and a second course is being designed to create a PG Certificate in Online Education for commencement next September.  Exciting times ahead!

TELEDA 2 opened with a ten day induction period on 23 October. Participants are virtually gathering. Induction is the first step of any online learning experience. It’s time for settling into the course and introducing the tools and outcomes. TELEDA is heavy on reflective practice as well as communication and collaboration.  Underpinned with the principles of staged interaction based on Salmon’s Five Step Model and Laurillard’s Conversational Framework, TELEDA has evolved from my experience supporting virtual education as well as being an online learner with the OU.

The new updated Blackboard is an improvement aesthetically. Visual elements influence participation and I find the discussion boards look better.  I’m not saying the new Blackboard is perfect but poor design can contribute to resistance and these forums are easier on the eye, have a neat link to unread items plus a facility for bunching conversations. I also like the notification feature which gives an overall indication of new content.

Contrary to what the rhetoric of elearning would have us believe,  online education is never an easy option. Garrison and Anderson identify three key presences; teaching, cognitive and social which need to come together, venn diagram style, for successful digital pedagogy. Building an online community (a la Wenger) for sharing practice can create powerful learning experiences. Over the years I’ve seen courses which build online participation through discussions and activities have the highest retention and completion rates.

TELEDA evolved from Embedding OER Practice as well as being a concious decision to multiple-task in resource strapped times. Rather than advise colleagues about creating online environments, I thought the experience of being an online student might be more effective. Using the same principle, I’m designing online workshops for the School of Journalism to precede discussions around developing blended and distance learning. Stepping out alone is challenging but feedback suggests experiential learning as professional development has potential. The internet is here to stay. VLE’s are not going anywhere – regardless how some days we wish the technology might get up and leave the building! For all their problems and difficulties, the vle supports widening participation. The policy worked for me. Now it’s my turn to support whatever any-time any-place any-where format needed to ensure widening higher education experiences remain achievable aspirations rather than impossible dreams.  

Florence Face; a 21st century version of Stendhal’s Syndrome

David outside Palazzio Vecchio  David outside Palazzio Vecchio

I thought Italy didn’t get better than Venice or Rome but I was wrong. Florence tops them. Anyone with a passion for art and history will feel at home walking in the footsteps of Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo. Galileo, Rossini, Brunelleschi worked there. The piazzas are unchanged. The same church bells ring the hours and call for mass. Cobblestones are original. If ever you wanted to kiss the ground, go to Florence where the essence of the renaissance spirit is alive and well. Although the practice of attribution makes me nervous, I risk suggesting people unaffected by Florence have no soul.

The 19th century author Stendhal, pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle,wrote the travelogue ‘Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio’ in 1817. Stendhal described his emotional reaction following a visit to Santa Croce, where highlights include frescos by Gaddi and Giotti dating from the early 1300’s. The frescos did it for Henrie-Marie.  I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul…I had palpitations of the heart..Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.  In the 1970s, Dr. Graziella Magherini at the Santa Maria Novella hospital, observed tourists overcome with physical and cognitive responses to the Florentine experience and named this Stendhal’s syndrome.

I didn’t suffer SS but did contract my own version. Now known as Florence Face, FF is to be open mouthed while lost for words. It was sensory overload. Accustomed to a world of digital simulations, which can dilute the impact of a ‘first-time’ experience, standing in the Uffizzi, inches from Botticelli’s Venus, or seeing Michelangelo’s David in the Academia, were useful reminders of the power of authentic objects. Iconic imagery fails to capture the essence of the original. The Other is not the same as the Real. For someone who lives too much life online, where anything is available in digital format, being in Florence was to experience the impact of reality.

The virtual experience of teaching and learning can never be the same as a one-to-one tutorial or small  group seminar. We have to accept the limitations. The rhetoric  of the 1990’s was over ambitious and doomed to disappoint. Technology can’t smile but has definite advantages.  Content can be accurately repeated. It doesn’t get tired. Links open new doors. Make unexpected connections. Reflective journals can be as comprehensive as necessary while remaining private. Cut/copy/paste commands make it easy to edit. Tools like blogs, wikis and discussion forums support online discussion and collaboration. Online assessment is neat and tidy. Online feedback legible. 24/7 access across traditional boundaries of time and distance widens participation.  There are lots of positives to offset the downsides of mechanisation. While the virtual can never have the impact of the real, this doesn’t mean we should dismiss it. I still have my photographs and postcards of Florence. They are permanent reminders of what can only ever be a transitory experience.

Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery  Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore from Giotti's Camponile