#bbworld15 part two; panels

It was publicly suggested Jay Bhatt should smile. I wouldn’t have noticed but looking at the photos you can see why it was suggested.

Blackboard is in town. A small town. Blink and you’d miss National Harbour. There’s a couple of streets, one giant eye of a wheel and the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Centre. That’s all folks. The only similarity with Washington DC, where you might have expected to be if you didn’t do your homework and read the small print, is they’re both on the south side of the Potomac River. Squinting through the heat haze from my window I can just make out the Washington memorial on the horizon – but the country is flat and it is the tallest stone structure in the world.

The Convention Centre exists in a bubble of plate glass and steel. Over three floors – no maps provided – I walked miles down endless carpeted corridors and up complex marble patterned steps where each one merged into the other. National Harbour is underneath a flight path. Every minute a supersize-me passenger plane descends along the line of the river. That’s a lot of people flying into one single city every day. Multiply by all the cities in the US to feel small and insignificant. America does this to you.

Meeting Blackboard face to face can be daunting. They’re a multinational corporation. Education is their business and profit the name of their game, but underneath all the razzmatazz you can always find people like me, who believe in the power of VLE to make a difference to the student experience. Choice about time and place of access, widening participation, student centred independent and lifelong learning – these are the thoughts you need to hang onto, especially when you’re full of flight flu and your eyes are blurred because your eye drops have leaked all over your suitcase.

The official Blackboard messages contain few surprises. Metrics, data, analytics, even bigger data, more analytics, workflows, leverages, income streams – but there were some great presentations (more in #BBWorld15 Part Three), cool demonstrations (Collaborate is looking good!) and two excellent panels.

The student panel was given a main slot. Great idea! Coming from the University of Lincoln, where students as co-producers and contributors of their own education and wider institution (see http://edeu.lincoln.ac.uk/student-as-producer/ for further information) it’s easy to take a high level of student engagement for granted. It’s only when you hear it being talked about it as something new and innovative you realise not everyone has moved as far down the ‘students as partners’ path as Lincoln. Panel members were

  • Zak Malamed, Founder and Executive Director of Student Voice,
  • Joelle Stangler, Student Body President at the University of Minnesota,
  • Aaron Wagner, Georgetown University,
  • Ifetayo Kitwala from Baltimore School for the Arts
  • Kunal Bhadane, University of Maryland.

Kudos to all of them for presenting such different but important views of the student experience. All should be well with the world if these are its future leaders.

The second panel the next day consisted of

  • Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology in the US Department of Education,
  • Amy Laitinen, Deputy Director, Education Policy, New America,
  • Kent Hopkins, Vice Provost for Enrolment Services, Arizona State University
  • Kris Clerkin, Executive Director, College for America at Southern Hampshire University.

One of the resources on an early TELEDA course was Richard Culatta’s TED talk – Reimaging Learning.

Key points I took away from the second panel were to ditch the phrase non-traditional  and use post -traditional student or new learners; as they now represent the majority of higher education enrolments. Education should fit around the learner because life happens and gets in the way of locked down routes and expectations.  I liked the phrase ‘This is a wind me up and watch me go question‘ – it reminded me of my digital soapbox which is always ready to make an appearance – and technology should be like GPS  i.e. give a choice about the road ahead and then seamlessly replot the route if the driver takes a wrong turn.

Lastly, the keynote by Adora Svitak was inspiring and the examples of Adora’s speaking style on YouTube show why https://www.youtube.com/user/adorasvitak 

What I liked best was how she was one of the few people during the week to actively engage the audience, encouraging us to take out our phones and tweet answers to her questions which she then tracked live on stage. The surprise was the  low number of people who put up their hands to say they would join in – maybe most were like me and couldn’t get onto the Blackboard wifi which effectively silenced me digitally – but did mean I was one of the few during sessions whose head was positioned at 180 degrees.

More about the presentations in #BbWorld15 Part Three.

Keynotes and panels are available to watch on http://www.bbworldlive.com/ 



#BbWorld15 part one; Peter Diamandis Keynote

You think your world is big. Then you travel and realise it’s small. You think you’re open to new ideas and ways of being. Then you come face to face with the future and realise how little you know.

At last year’s Blackboard World Conference, the closing keynote was given by Geoffrey Canada. I thought it would be a hard act to follow but Blackboard managed it. Peter Diamandis (XPrize Foundation,  Singularity U and much, much more) called his talk Innovation and Disruption on the Road Ahead. Opening up to how exponential technologies are changing our lives – now as well as in the future – this video from YouTube is an example. 

In the book Abundance, Diamandis includes the development of AI by the name of Watson. Like millions of others, I watched Watson play and win Jeopardy.

That was four years ago. Today Watson has moved on from downloading Wikipedia and is now on the cloud, moving into medicine. The plan is a partnership with medics so they no longer need to memorise a mass of information but can ask Watson instead.

We’re told the difference between Watson and Google is Google offers information, while Watson represents knowledge. Soon everyone will be able to connect to Watson via a mobile phone. How scary is that! What are the safeguards Hal? What will this mean for the future of higher education?

We are living in a world of perfect knowledge. A data driven world. LEO satellite constellations orbit the earth, watching and recording.  Drones are getting smaller; more inconspicuous, anonymous and disposable. Google cars carry a LIDAR device on their roof to gather and interpret data. There is no such thing as privacy. Diamandus tells us robotics will displace 48% workforce. Will they displace me? What will happen to art and creativity? Only a few weeks ago the Guardian ran a piece on the neural networks of software;  Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep

3D printing is turning abstract ideas into concrete realities in 300 different materials. How many more will be available by next week, month, year?

3D cars have been printed.

In China, Winsun have printed 3D houses.

Biometric devices like the Google contact lens can test glucose levels in tears for diabetics.

Virtual Reality is the next educational revolution. Oculus have been bought by Facebook. The future is Microsoft Windows Holographics where the virtual and the real come together.

This is not science fiction. It is already fact.

If this is what we know, how much more don’t we know? Where does this leave virtual learning environments like Blackboard and the traditional ideas of school, college and university – already being challenged by the internet.

BBWorld15 offered extremes.  On the one side Diamandis tells us to disrupt before we are disrupted, while on the other presentations called for attention of digital divides.

99% of the conference involved 3000 delegates sitting and passively listening. We might have the technology but how much difference is it really making to way we operate, in particular within the educational sector? More thoughts on this in BBWorld15 Part Two.

#BbWorld15 my bags are (not yet) packed, am (not quite) ready to go

I’ve finally uploaded my presentation for the Blackboard International Conference #BbWorld15 taking advantage of the time difference to interpret Thursday US as Friday UK. Phew! It’s been a bit of a rush. I’ve adapted two of my favourite slides to talk about institutional adoption of technology – this time drawing on TELEDA to explore the academic perspective. Not everyone views technology in the same way. Some colleagues who teach and support learning are fine with exploring and experimenting  – they use a range of technology and understand how it enhances and empowers the student experience. Others are a little less enthusiastic and I know how they feel. Anyone who works with me can see if the technology can go wrong it’s me it goes wrong with. Me and the Digital don’t go together too well. It’s hard work but generally worth it because for me the benefits outweigh the challenges.

TELEDA has shown the value of experiential learning when it comes to getting up close and personal with VLE like Blackboard. Internet access has posed a challenge to traditional notions of what it means to be an academic. It isn’t enough to put content online and hope for the student to arrive and engage with it. To create successful online education involves relearning the pedagogies of face to face teaching and applying them to the digital environment instead. It can be done but it takes time and time is the one thing we are all short of.

Many people still make assumptions about digital capabilities. This risks initiative failure for example when establishing baselines of digital capabilities we need to talk to the digitally shy and resistant – not just the innovators and adopters- and it would help to shift from a technology-training  approach to a teaching-pedagogies one. Blackboard support needs to be contextualised so it’s relevant and meaningful – one way is to apply the experiential learning cycle – relocate staff as students on VLE – give online tasks and build more critical reflection. Opportunities like TELEDA suggest more explicit ‘teaching-not-training’ links with CPD/staff development activities could be useful. The TELEDA research indicates this aids the shift from Blackboard as repository to Blackboard as generator of learning activities. Bring on Blackboard World2015. Lets see if anyone else agrees!


#uogapt elearning, eteaching, eliteracies part two

Flipping the Institution at Greenwich #uogapt defined the post-digital age as taking computers and the internet for granted because they’ve always been there. But there are risks. The internet is exclusive. Digital access parameters replicate and reinforce existing categories of disempowerment.  While those who are connected are increasingly tracked and monitored those who are disconnected are digitally discriminated and increasingly invisible. The post digital world is surveillance heavy and divisive.

Flipped learning ‘s focus on placing digital resources online provides timely opportunities to revisit what it means to develop digital literacies for all users; students and academics. Digital literacies have morphed into digital capabilities, the Jisc seven elements reduced to six and no one mentions SCONUL’s digital literacy lens anymore – which is a shame because it was explicit about the risks of digital divides.

Teaching decisions can constitute barriers to access and engagement and speakers Jonathan Worth, David White and Helen Beetham made reference to the risks of being digitally connected and disconnected.  Their presentations reinforced the value of events like these.

Here are my key takeaways from the day.

If you are not on twitter you are excluding yourself from relevant conversations.

The first waves of technology was plugging it in and using it. The second post digital wave is using it innovatively.

Open education demonstrates the facilitation of learning through the use of social media for example Jonathan Worth’s open access photography course http://phonar.org/ #phonar

Other links worth following: Coventry University’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab http://dmll.org.uk #disruptivebytes and Speaking Openly http://speakingopenly.co.uk/   #speakingopenly. Visit Audrey Watters  and Hack Education Read Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin on the  world of electronic surveillance

Digital Wellbeing means taking steps to know mobile devices track and store data about us. Quick surveillance check for iphonesgo to Settings > Privacy >  Location Services > System Services > Frequent Locations to see how you are monitored.

Questions to reflect on.

  • What does inspiring teaching look like in a post digital age?
  • Will the TEF include a measurement of digital engagement?
  • How can reluctant and resistant academics be encourage to engage with virtual learning as more than an electronic repository of content?
  • One outcome of post digital is the expectation people will be available online 24/7 in particular for work responses to emails. Is this right, fair or sustainable?
  • Staff and students need to know how to construct and maintain professional digital identities and reputations. What we do online today in the digital world may influence future opportunities. How do we support digital responsibility?

Teaching decisions can constitute barriers to access and engagement.  The digital amplifies existing inequality. We should all take personal responsibility within digital practices to recognise the potential for exclusion.  Tackling digital exclusion needs awareness which leads to action. Digital exclusion is being rebranded by Jisc as social responsibility. There is a risk the reality of digital divides and exclusions will get lost in this change of language. Those within the digital sector might be aware of the inner meanings, but those outside will not.

The employability agenda is turning students into products for employers. This commodification reinforces the need to focus on ‘sense of self’ in the post digital age. We need to be equipped to live in a digital world. Like Media Studies taught students to deconstruct images to see the hidden discourse beneath, students now need to understand how social media frames them.

Multimedia is the new measure of digital literacy with video replacing text and image as preferred means of communication.

PechaKucha are short, sharp bursts of creative energy which challenge you to be concise and digitally capable. The format at Greenwich was ten slides in ten minutes which was fine; developing presentations like these would support digital confidence.

The student voice at Greenwich included a set of mini dramas showing the student side of ‘post digital’ education and a final reminder of how it’s the face-to-face experience which still has the power to educate and entertain.

#uogapt elearning, eteaching, eliteracies part one

photo (6) I left Greenwich reinspired. Conferences do this to you. Fill your head with new ways of thinking and seeing the world. You’re enthused and want to capture and share the experience. I left with ideas about how to be more creative, make greater use of multimedia, re-engage with Twitter, turn blog posts into videos, recreate TELEDA as a MOOC, then went back to work and was reminded of the divide between thought and practice. Developing digital capabilities and competencies takes time and there is never enough. The early rhetorical promises of educational technologies to cut costs and increase efficiency missed completely the need to learn and polish new ways of working.

The 13th Academic Practice and Technology Conference was at the University of Greenwich on 7th July. The location was unique – the only university to be on a National Heritage site – The Old Royal Naval College – built by Christopher Wren on the side of the River Thames and next to the Cutty Sark, now encased in an ugly glass visitor surround and box.

The naval college consists of four courts. The famous Painted Hall in King William Court was closed to visitors because Kiera Knightly and Joan Collins were filming so I stood under an open window in neighbouring King Charles Court, home of the Trinity Laban School of Music and Dance, and listened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition played on a solo piano instead. It was magical.

The conference was in Queen Anne Court. Titled Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post-Digital Age, the welcome text included reference to not all students being comfortable or sufficiently skilled to engage in post digital environments. I was there to say the same about academics and how the subject of staff digital confidence has become a case of elephants (in the room) and emperors (new clothes). We don’t talk about it but we should. I presented some themes from my literature review and data analysis:

  • The focus of the educational technology literature is on the student as elearner rather than academics as eteachers – yet eteaching is the corollary to elearning.
  • The literature of elearning is predominantly about success stories – yet we know there’s more to be learned from studying failure
  • The experience of those who are not great technology advocates is missing – resistance and reluctance are not being explored
  • Making assumptions about digital ways of working is risky and may lead to failure The diversity of different starting points is rarely recognised
  • Digital literacies are complex – they mirror us as individuals, everyone approaches virtual environments in different ways, so models and frameworks need to be flexible to accommodate diversity (and start from zero)
  • Academics need time and space to become e-teachers and engage with digital pedagogies as well as gain digital confidence – not good news when everyone is squeezed and stretched but staff development has to protected in particular when it comes digital ways of working 
  • Everyone wants students to have the best possible experience – but not everyone sees technology as a way of achieving this
  • It would help to shift from training models of competency to teacher education programmes; TELEDA shows the value of an approach which is structured around experiential learning and critical reflection and  TELEDITEs take their TELEDA experience into their practice.

One of the outputs from the three years of TELEDA development has been what I call the Myths of Digital Competence. They go something like this:

  • Not everyone owns a mobile device or has access to an up to date computer off campus.
  • Not everyone realises apps like BB mobile don’t give full functionality
  • Common technical support advice is to use another browser but not everyone knows what browser they’re using or how to change to a different one
  • Not everyone can get photos off their camera or phone onto a computer
  • Not everyone can use a text editor or turn text into a URL
  • html view is useful for tweaking, trouble shooting or getting the embed code from YouTube but not everyone knows you can do this or how to do it
  • The majority of academics don’t have access to a webcam or microphone – or a quiet place to record a narration

More about the presentations by Jonathan Worth, Robert White and Helen Beetham in elearning, eteaching, eliteracies part two.

#uogapt Preparation for Flipping the Institution conference at Greenwich

Preparation for conferences requires boundaries. Limits on minutes and slides demands conciseness as key messages are extracted and difficult decisions made about what to leave behind. The parts you present are only ever a fraction of the whole story.

Flipping the Institution is at the University of Greenwich on 7th July. The deadline for uploading presentation slides is 29th June. As always it’s a tight squeeze.  Not only in terms of preparation but because the guidance says ten slides only. I confess to not counting the  introduction and conclusion and hope I will be forgiven.

Not being a fan of the Prezi slide and glide style, I’ve stayed with PowerPoint, using pictures rather than all text. I’m not sure how it will work but will find out on the 7th!  Preloaded presentations are being made available in advance for participants to decide which sessions to attend. My concern is if the pictures will tell the story out of context so I’m hoping the preload includes note fields. It’s like making lecture content available before the event. It takes away any elements of surprise so in spite of the value I understand reluctance to do so.

I often think of presentations as a journey; beginning with who are you, where you’re from and why you’re there, followed by the problem, what you did it and why you did it, then the results, their implications and lastly a summary pulling it all together. That’s the plan and these are the headlines from each slide.


1. For many people working with technology can be a challenge.

2. technophan or technophobe – digital divides on campus.

3. The literature identifies a need to support academic staff to engage with digital ways of working.

4.. Introduction to my research using the poster from a recent Show and Tell event.

5. Four key themes from my literature review of the field of educational technology.

6.  To move forward sometimes benefits from looking back, in this case to the NCIHE report into the future of higher education (Dearing Report 1997).

7. Data analysis suggests four key themes emerging.

8. Myths of digital confidence influence how support is provided.

9. Data surprise; unexpected findings.

10. Quotes from the data analysis.

Summary and conclusion.

Looking forward to 7th July 🙂


Back to Reality!

It’s PhD time again. P for Positionality, H for higher and D for danger. Put them together and what have you got? Something scary and exciting in equal measures. My days are stretched to their limits but I have enjoyed the mental aerobics. Juggling different ways of seeing the world. 50 shades of perception and all that!

It’s been a while since the incident of the plastic folder and snapped fibula. The Phd has slid silently under the surface again. Now it’s back. My life is on hold. The dictionary is out. I’ve been re-reading social theory. The ‘…ologies’ have returned and once more the task of defining the nature of knowledge is keeping me company up and down the A15.

The last bit of data analysis I did was August 2014. My last grapple with critical realism was February when I completed the first three chapter drafts. These are PhD-bergs. What you see on the surface is nothing compared to the mass of work underneath. It’s the nature of a part-time PhD. The visible bits bob about, surfacing, sinking, swimming around your consciousness like guilt.  You never quite get rid of them. The invisible parts are best kept hidden. Angst, sweat and lots of tears. But there are advantages to gaps in study. They offer perspective. Ignoring the trauma of last weekend when I looked at my nodes in NVivo (!) and couldn’t recall any thinking behind them, revisiting the social theory has mostly been ok. What does sometimes depress me is the complexity of academic text.

I support widening participation and inclusion. To achieve these requires acknowledgement of the interplay between complexity and risk of exclusion. I understand some knowledge needs specialist language but I’ve always seen the challenge of teaching in higher education as making complexity meaningfully accessible. Much of my reading at the moment is the opposite.

Maybe I’m idealistic and/or naïve to think doctoral study can be anything other than difficult with regards to language but there comes a point where deliberate use of academic jargon excludes engagement or worse; the case of Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity by AD Sokel comes to mind.

Borrowing from Lord Lieth effective writing should inform, educate and entertain.  This was my plan. A Thesis with style. I’ve been told it’s not meant to be engaging but why die over production if no one is going to enjoy reading it.

Adding to the body of knowledge – no matter how small the contribution – will be meaningless unless it can be understood. My research is about practice. It seeks to explain the divide between the rhetoric and the reality of e-learning, to explore why technology is quite probably a deterrent rather than a gift for the majority of colleagues. I could wrap it all up in jargon but it isn’t meant to be an exercise in obscurity. Education should be inclusive. It’s a far greater challenge to make complexity accessible than to add to all the obscurity which is already out there.

Print impairment – the language of hope

visual impairment logo

A new phrase has appeared in JISC World. Print impairment. It describes difficulty with accessing text-based resources. Alistair McNaught writes ‘Between 10-13% of people in the UK … have difficulty accessing text-based resources, varying from dyslexia through to visual impairments and motor difficulties.’

The source of this figure is uncertain. 2020 Vision is cited but they have no reference. The RNIB estimate over 2 million people experience sight loss  while Dyslexia Action say approximately 10% of the population is thought to be dyslexic with a total of two million people severely affected. There will be cross overs between these estimates and also all those who’ve not been counted.  Print impairment is likely to be more prevalent than we realise.

The JISC post is about digital exams. Rather than extra time, extra readers, extra rooms or DIY digital versions of exam papers, the Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) now  requires ‘awarding bodies to offer digital copies of exam papers for print-disabled learners’. Here the language reverts to the D word which is a shame. More on this at later.

Digging through the literature the initiative appears directed at schools but the JISC paper Making the most of accessible exam papers highlights potential problems which are applicable anywhere technology is used for education. The files provided by awarding bodies will be available as PDF so the onus is on the institution to ensure compatibility with assistive reading tools and support for the accessibility features of Adobe Reader. As with all things digital, this is not without complications. Laptops used during exams must meet the security requirements of awarding bodies and staff who teach and support learning will need confidence with operating in assistive technology environments.  While JISC suggest ‘Extra time taken in updating staff skills and giving learners good technology training should be outweighed by the reduced support needs of learners.’ anything which involves additional work load plus digital engagement is likely to be unpopular. The paper recommends disability support teams  ‘train learners to make the most of examination papers in PDF format.’ The term ‘train learners’ is terrible. What happened to educate? But aside from the pedantics, this suggestion replicates and reinforces what has always been wrong with disability education – the responsibility for accessible practice is seen as belonging elsewhere. It’s something which is done by a few for a few rather than inclusion being a mainstream philosophy and practice. The term print-impairment offers hope but print-disability takes us right back where we started from.

At least the post re-acknowledged the value of digital environments. It isn’t possible to over emphasise these.  Digital text provides the ability to change colours, magnify text and images and navigate swiftly through a document – things that significantly reduce the barriers for people with print impairments. What isn’t mentioned is content has to be designed inclusively for this to happen!

These are key messages which are still largely unheard and unacknowledged. As always the message from JISC World looks good on the surface but dig deeper and the potential for inclusive practice risks erosion from a lack of understanding about the inclusive value of digital resources and the wider – even greater – challenge of resistance to change.

Flipping the institution as a risk?

Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age  happens July 7th at the University of Greenwich. It’s the 13th Academic Practice and Technology (APT) Conference and the focus is on the challenges facing the post digital university in the post digital age. My presentation is ‘e-learning, e-teaching, e-literacy; enhancement versus exclusion’. Like my ASCILITE paper on e-teaching craft and practice, it takes the staff rather than student perspective, much of which has derived from the TELEDA courses. These offer a privileged insight into the influences on colleague’s attitudes and behaviours towards technology. Not only have they highlighted the divide between the technology innovators and the rest of us, they have reinforced how our use of technology is personal – it reflects how we are – which makes the development of any consistent approach a challenging prospect.

I don’t claim to be an innovator or early adopter to use the language of Rogers (2003 5th ed). Anyone who works with me knows if the technology can go wrong then it’s me it goes wrong with. I’m an advocate because of its potential  for widening participation, for flexible 24/7 access and for users of assistive technology. Digital data has the potential to be customised to suit any individual requirements but in order to achieve this, resources and environments have to support inclusive practice and the principles of universal design.

TELEDA2 – Social Media and e-resources – is nearly over.  The Learning Blocks are finished, portfolios have been submitted and as the whole TELEDA experience draws to a close, I’m looking back over the past three years. It’s been a roller coaster trip full of highs and lows which I guess is in the nature of innovation.  Each course included an inclusive practice learning outcome:

Reflect upon, and demonstrate a critical awareness of inclusive practice in relation to online teaching and learning resources, communication and collaborative working with and between students

This was my way of raising awareness of the value of online learning. Sometimes this worked. Sometimes it didn’t. TELEDA has given much to reflect on with regard to my own practice. It suggests a key challenge facing the post digital university in the post digital age is the amount of resistance towards the use of virtual environments as anything other than electronic pin boards as well as widespread misunderstandings around issues of accessibility.

e-literacy is complex. It’s personal and political. When it comes to technology for education I realise I’m in a different place. We all are. The way we see and use technology is an extension of how we live and everyone is unique.

If e-learnng and e-teaching are to have value there needs a shift in ethos towards seeing virtual environments as enablers rather than chores. Technology fads arrive driven with the enthusiasm of the few. Always there is the hope of a magic key which makes a difference to perception and use.  I started out seeing the flip as an opportunity to revisit enhanced use of VLE like Blackboard. Not I’m not so sure. I wonder if the risk is to return to seeing the VLE as a place to store content, rather than the interactive, collaborative and equitable learning experience it has the potential to be.

China; the end of the journey

Four weeks on and my Chinese adventures are fading. The folder of digi-pix on my laptop and shared memories with friends are all that reminds me of my amazing journey. I saw and heard the China of my imagination and childhood dreams; the traditional music, stick puppetry, Sichuan opera and a changing faces display with real fire where masks  and clothes were switched in a blink of an eye – in less than a breath. Too quick to photograph.

I loved the calligraphy, the visual style of writing with images instead of letters, and the art of paper cutting, a simple idea made complex. It makes 19th century English silhouettes look primitive.

I saw China as it is today; a rapidly developing country with massive construction projects, overcrowding, air pollution, limited sanitation and bad water.

The colour green surprised me; it was green in the parks and gardens, paddy fields, bamboo forests and tea plantations. Traditionally the Chinese have always lived in harmony with nature. It was Mao who said nature was there to be dominated and controlled. Today the Chinese say Mao was 60% right. They are renewing their relationship with the natural world. New cities incorporate public parks and gardens. Chengdu, which has adopted relaxation as its mantra, promotes recycling and green attitudes.

The Yangtze river was 57 shades of green, reflecting the sides of the wooded gorges, which used to be the tops of mountains.A stark white water line was a permanent reminder of how the Three Gorges Dam represents one aspect of nature still very much under control.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the pandas yet.

My closest previous encounter was Chi Chi who lived at London Zoo. By the time I saw her she was stuffed behind glass in the Natural History Museum. In China I saw my first living pandas at the Breeding Centre outside Chengdu.

Pandas get up, eat bamboo, then sleep. You have to be there early. Bamboo is hard as rock, and so tough it’s used as scaffolding poles. Their powerful teeth and jaws crunch it like sugar. You hear the panda before you see it.

Pan Da translates at Fat Big and generations of emperors killed pandas for their pelts. In 1949 the Panda was put under protection. A 2014 census found 1864 giant pandas in the wild. The WWF claims this is an increase of 17% from the late 1970s. The black and white panda is from the bear family; the red panda from the racoons. At the breeding centre we were surprised by a red panda which dropped from the trees onto the platform, staring at us intently before turning its back and walking away.

Another traditional symbol of Chinese culture is the dragon. They are everywhere. Old and new. Past and present. Dragons are the heart of myth and legend. Like great floods and creation stories, they exist across countries and cultures, each with their own version, The dragon is the only mythical animal in Chinese horoscopes. It’s the sign of rulers and leaders. Everyone wants to be a dragon.

We all left something of ourselves in China.  My new panama hat was accidentally abandoned  in Beijing. One friend mislaid her raincoat in Chongqing while another put her valuables in the hotel safe in Chengdu and left them there. At least they were secure and retrievable. Not like the fellow traveller who lost his passport and had no idea where it might be. He also lost several days of his trip applying for the essential paperwork for our internal flights – which was manageable – and to leave the country – which was not. At the end we left him behind, still waiting for the replacement visa and papers needed for a temporary passport, hoping to transfer his tickets to a different flight. Losing your passport is never advisable but losing it in China is probably the worst place of all.

My credit card was hacked. 48 hours after Xian, its details were being used in Saudi Arabia. The NatWest fraud squad sent texts asking if this was legitimate and blocked the card. Pin codes on transactions were uncommon. Most places asked for signatures. It showed the value of taking a backup card and keeping your phone switched on.

Two people got lost. Unable to read the signs or speak any Chinese, they couldn’t find their way back to the meeting point. We understood then why the guide was so insistent we had her phone number at all times. It emphasised the vulnerability created by our lack of linguistic skills.

I returned home with renewed respect for our Chinese students dealing with the complexity of English language and custom.  I realised the difference some Chinese signage around the university would make, and recalling fellow travellers carrying forks in their backpacks, I wondered why there were no chopsticks in the Atrium. I felt I gained a better understanding of the potential for confusion with our self-service style food and how easy it was to misunderstand the difference between gravy and custard. While I was away the Quad Diner opened a King Asia Noodle bar; its menu including noodle broth, Szechuan beef, Char Siu pork, Gyoza and Wantons.It reminded me how strange it is when food is unfamiliar.

All I knew about China was through books and films but this type of knowledge is only ever based on simulation. Anderson (1983) and Baudrillard (1994) have much to say about the nature of reality. In times east and west collided. One restaurant served us a plate of pale limp chips, a concession to dietary expectations. It looked out of place but was pounced on with cries and sighs of relief. The reality of travel is to leave behind the familiar and step out into the strange but sometimes the strange is dealt with badly. We can’t always help it. I’ve been asked several times if I would go back and I think I would – but there are other countries to visit first!

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities.  Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,  London and New York, Verso

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, translated by sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor The University of Michigan Press