implications of ‘not’ having online presence

My interest in online identity began in relation to gender and the ability to portray yourself textually as male or female. Second Life took this one step further with choices over visual appearance. For me, early assumptions were that online identity was something you played with; an opportunity for deliberate experimentation. Authenticity was rare.  Contrast this with the situation today where across the sector those working in higher education use their online identity to network, share ideas and generally extend the working day. The assumption is now that this constitutes a reasonably accurate reflection of your working persona.

This is not without implications for the digital divide; the one that is less about technology and more about the ways in which it is used. If you maintain a digital absence between Friday 4.30pm and Monday 8.30am and (for whatever reason) don’t tweet, blog or have Facebook ‘friends’, then the chances are you will not have an interest in the construction and maintenance of an online identity, never mind any debate over the discursive nature of this identity.

The question here is at which point does the choice not to participate in a virtual extension of yourself begin to impact on your ‘real’ working world. Are we reaching a point where having an online presence is becoming seriously more advantageous than not – where online networking has greater benefits in terms of not just wider debate but off-line issues such as career progression? What does it say about us if we Google ourselves and find there’s nothing there? How do we feel when we work with colleagues who don’t ‘do all this online stuff’ – are we tolerant of their choice or increasingly frustrated?

I’ve visited this before and no doubt will do again. Earlier this year HEFCE released its revised elearning strategy; this clearly shows how education technology is becoming integral to the higher education experience not just for students but for those working across the sector. Yet levels of engagement remain diverse. I wonder if we are creating a new digital taxonomy and if so what would it look like? A topic for my next blog I think….   


online academic identity

Blogs are fast moving and transient worlds. I didn’t agree with Martin Weller’s  post about online academic identity – but by the time I’d reflected on a response he had also agreed it was too simplistic a definition – although for different reasons to mine. “Rather than suggesting your online and academic identities were one and the same” Martin writes, (here) “Your online academic identity will be a subset of your online identities.” Now the ways in which virtual environments allow us to play with and explore alternative identities have fascinated me since the days of MUDS and MOOS. If I were on Mastermind my specialist subject would be gender – a fundamental identity characteristic yet possibly the one we think about the least. So multiple online identities – along with awareness of danger and good management of risk – is where I’m at and I wondered if the risk of linking academic and online identity is that it both privileges and marginalises. Also when related to education it comes close to Fischer’s suggestion  that the technologically illiterate teacher should be equated with a failure to read and write.  Technology is only that simple to the technologists themselves.

The danger with conflating academic and digital identities is the assumption that one size fits all. We are currently awash with reports that promote digital environments; Digital Britain , the Edgeless University, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age and assumptions that connection is the way forward. None acknowledge the difficulties of digital universalism. Sometimes I feel that in 10 years time I will still be saying ‘don’t forget diversity!’ I support virtual environments for the opportunities to widen participation across all aspects of life but many people need additional time, inclination, resources and assistance in access. In conclusion:

* I’m less concerned about the kudos attached to having an online presence.
* I’m slightly more concerned about negativity being attached to those who chose not to have one.
* I’m concerned most of all about those who are unable to participate in the first place.

Digitising Siegfried Sassoon?

The collected letters, notebooks etc of Siegfried Sassoon are for sale –


I don’t know how monetary value (£1.25 million) is established but I do wonder how much technology is destroying work for future archivists.  Recently in the British Library for the Henry VIII Man and Monarchy exhibition I looked at the floor to ceiling bookcases housing the Kings Library and wondered what we are sacrificing to have the speed and ease of electronic communication – if anything at all. Should we celebrate or challenge the digitisation of the book?  Is the demise of the craft of book binding on a par with baking daily bread on hot stones; is achieving an outcome faster always an improvement to be applauded? Political response to the Luddites was the Frame Breaking Act whereby those guilty of challenging progress could be sentenced to death. What is the Internet equivalent in terms of resistance and sanctions? Occasionally the work network is down; a useful reminder of the extent to which our lives are online – as we tidy our desks and make coffee and feel redundant without our digital connections.

Technology may mean less to preserve in the future. Turning the Pages uses technology to preserve the work of the past and makes it more widely available by digitising some of the rarest books in the world.  The digitisation of the works of Siegfried Sassoon would make them accessible to a wider audience. Art needs to be visible. Sassoon’s notebooks from WW1 have additional value for their first hand experience of the madness of war and the later problems of psychological damage and rehabilitation. For this alone they should be preserved and made available. We can all learn from the creative work of others.

But does instant Internet access to the product of human labour devalue it?  Are we losing sight of the difference between the real and the replication? Seeing a digital image of a page from the Book of Kells is not enough; we need to know about the hours spent crafting a single letter, the conditions under which it was produced; the cold stone floors, the poor light, the preciousness of the gold and coloured pigments. Poetry is a product of the environment; Sasssoon was a man of his times. The digital page is only ever a part of the story and a danger of digitisation is the increasing separation from the human element – as well as the lack of  letters and notebooks and other documents that still retain the human dimension and touch for future generations to reflect on.

The internet is as vital as water and gas…

The PM in his ”The Internet is as vital as water and gas..” article in the Times  says in his final paragraph that ‘Digital Britain cannot be a two-tier Britain – with those who can take full advantage of being online and those who can’t.’

Considering this is where we are now, I watch the for the government’s next move towards digitising Britain with interest.


If you’ve ever tried to use an e-book you’ll know there are serious limitations; you need a reader, preferably portable; you can’t easily flick through the pages to go back to a specific sentence or idea, you can’t annotate the pages. E-books are increasingly being adopted across the sector and hyped as a cost effective solution to issues of space and availability. But let’s not forget that e-books are a visual medium and increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation.

Under the DDA  public bodies are meant to enusre reasonable adjustments (so those with disabilities are not discriminated against compared to those without the same disability) in terms of access to services including libraries and information resources. But academic e-book publishers have no such requirements. As libraries increase their subscriptions to electronic resources so they are moving away from their duty to ensure equality. This issue was raised in a recent post on the JISC Mail Disabilities and Technology forum for Tech-Dis  [TECH-DIS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK] where Simon Ball, Senior TechDis Advisor, describes improving the accessibility of ‘e-book and e-journal delivery software’ as a ‘priority area’.  With no disrespect to TechDis, the words ‘horse’, ‘ stable’ and ‘door’ inevitably  come to mind. It’s good to see that they are working directly with the RNIB on this. Rapid adoption of e-books across the sector reinforces the invisibility of accessibility legislation and how addressing the issues continues to be a ‘bolt-on’ exercise rather than integral to new developments.

As a society we seem to be increasingly failing our more vulnerable members. The recent statement by the PM (following the  publication of  the Digital Britain report), that that a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as “an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water”  and the proposal to tax telephone lines to provide it, is a classic example of running before walking. Weakness in provision of the fundamentals is then compounded by public institutions such as the British Library whose digitisation of newspapers project has resulted in commercial ‘pay-as-you-go’ access to the nations history. Instead of climbing up towards greater integration and awareness of the need to cater for diversity, the needs of the socially vulnerable seem to be sliding back down into invisibility.

Digital Britain – failure

The Digital Britain Report was published on 16 June; the 245 pages necessitating some form of summary version.   The BBC ran an At a Glance page and Comments from Experts, none of which addressed this missed opportunity to ensure those to whom affordable, efficient Broadband connection could have the greatest impact in terms of quality of life were given priority.


The RNIB response was a lone, but essential, voice.

“We are concerned however that neither people with sight problems nor disabled people in general are specifically mentioned at any point in the interim “Delivering Digital Britain” report.”

I’ve extracted some quotes that have particular resonance for the work I do supporting people with visual impairment to use computers and access the Internet.

In response to Action 17: Unless a service is affordable, it cannot be deemed accessible. Affordability is a particular concern for  blind and partially sighted people, many of whom are among the poorest of the UK’s citizens.


In response to Action 19: This means that the issue of equipment accessibility has to be tackled. Too often inaccessible equipment, that assumes that the user can read on-screen information without providing a voiced alternative is the main barrier to uptake of services by blind and partially sighted people.


In response to Action 21: Many disabled people rely even more on public services than their non-disabled peers, for a variety of reasons. A blind person might well have greater difficulty in visiting their council, for instance, and would therefore benefit greatly from being able to access the council’s website. However, a recent EU wide survey found that only some 5% of public websites are accessible. RNIB therefore urges the government to take urgent action to improve the accessibility of public websites.


The need to address the accessibility of cost, equipment and content is a triple whammy that yet again fails to support the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of society. I struggle to understand how those with sight can so totally ignore the reality of those without this most fundamental of human rights.

Cats and dogs and pheromones: researching the student experience

The paper I presented at ATINER 2009 was about a short level 3 online course I was given the opportunity to develop and support. The title comes from the use of pheromone therapy (natural chemicals) in the management of problem and stress behaviours in small and companion animals (cats and dogs). The use of pheromones has increased in veterinary practice in recent years but there was no supporting course or qualification. It was an opportunity to identify some of the challenges of distance delivery (retention, resources and socialisation) and look at possible solutions.

  •  Retention: build in time for induction with activities designed to ensure students have the prerequisite skills to be effective online learners.  
  • Resources: these need to work twice as hard if they are to stimulate, motivate and inspire enthusiasm. Formative assessment opportunities enable self assessment of new knowledge and application to practice.
  • Socialisation: difficult when students are learning at a distance in isolation but essential for support and encouragement.

 The opportunity to ask the first cohort of students about their experience of learning online seemed too good to miss. An initial evaluation was carried out by online survey and a second phase conducted via telephone or email interview. While students appreciated the induction and interaction with resources, they were less enthusiastic about opportunities for online socialisation preferring instead to focus on practice based communication. This may have been unique to this cohort, or common to all practice based short courses, and will be investigated again in the future.  


The Athens Institute for Education and Research have held their 11th anual education conference in Athens. My paper Cats, Dogs and Pheromones: researching the student experience was accepted and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend and present.

This was my first International Conference with multiple insights into lifestyles and education systems different to my own. There were over 170 presentations from the UK and the US, from Europe, the Middle East and Far East; too many to list individually but details are available from the conference website.

In true blog style I’ve reflected and extracted those strands which have made the greatest impression. An international conference exposes you to difference on so many levels; language, culture, customs, the difference in attitudes towards education, the state versus private systems, class, politics, race, gender and religion – it’s all there in a challenging mix that encourages you to see yourself and what you do not only though a different lens but from the privileged vantage point of a much wider picture.  I’ve come away having revisited my work, institution, country and self with fresh eyes and attitude. 

Many presentations focused on the poor status of teaching and the work being done to attract and keep motivated, enthusiastic individuals into the education sector.  Low esteem, and lack of support for innovative practice, was prevalent in ex-Soviet bloc countries such as Slovakia and Latvia. The quality of teaching was also an issue in several presentations from Turkey. In contrast, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia appeared to support educationalists and presentations from these countries focused more on developing student learning than staff CPD.

Social and cultural divides were exacerbated by political and economic difference in countries such as the US and South Africa. My own awareness of the high levels of negative attitudes towards black people in the US was raised and I would now recommend reading White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.

The reality of education in rural South Africa challenged the image of a successful one laptop per child project that I saw presented at the ALT 2008 conference. There we were shown pictures of happy smiling children in school uniforms holding their cream and green plastic laptops. At ATINER 2009 we heard about the difficulties of engaging with young children who were orphaned through HIV or AIDS, where the eldest child, often barely in their teens, takes on the role of parent and looks after siblings who are hungry, and only have their own rural language to communicate in. Criticism of projects like OLPC does seem justified. As much as I support educational opportunities as having potentially life changing powers, a basic hierarchy of needs, which we take far too much for granted, is being woefully ignored; food, water and shelter would seem more of a humanitarian investment than promoting educational technology that continues to create Western wealth and status.

It was reassuring to see a number of presentations under the theme Special Needs Education; referred variously to as ‘profound and complex learning difficulties’ and ‘Intellectual’ or ‘Developmental’ disability; a comment was made that Autism and Dyslexia are fashionable making it more likely that funding will be available and this seemed to be supported by the number and nature of the presentations in this area. It was disappointing to see that ‘special needs’ was the last conference slot; someone has to be at the end but I felt that this decision reinforced a sad lack of status.

Regarding my own areas of interest , there was little about preparation for education; the main focus in the majority of cases was on improving the quality of teaching rather than the quality of the student experience. Regarding the student, there were common themes from both east and west of learning styles, multiple (and emotional) intelligences and independent learning but the concepts of preparation and/or retention were largely absent. The exception was a presentation from the UK that looked at the difficulties encountered by students transitioning from Foundation degree in FE College to final year on campus and it seemed there was a lot of cross over with my Getting Started project aimed at new potential students.

Another area of interest is online learning and I looked for relevant presentations but mine seemed to be on of the few focusing on construction of virtual learning. The few others I found were about the staff or the student rather than the content. I may have missed some. I realise now how important it is to ensure the title reflects the content. When it is the only information available (no abstract or even a strapline) it’s open to misinterpretation.

In countries with greater state controls than the UK, it must take a brave person to stand up and suggest change especially where this could be interpreted as criticism of existing systems. For example, to gain employment in Turkey your educational qualification is less important than your ideas, family, ethnicity and religion; it’s illegal the presenter told us but it’s ‘how things are done’. Also, the event emphasises the privileged position of the English language. On several occasions I heard presenters apologising for their English, explaining that they had 2, 3, or 4 other languages, then going on the present and take questions with a fluency I couldn’t muster in any language. Travel and exposure to other ways of life can be a powerful educational experience; it was apparent from many presentations, in particular those from the far east, that the UK education system is valued and yet one of its weaknesses is the lack of support for the development of a multi lingual curriculum.

On a generic level, it was a friendly conference with typical ‘laid back’ Greek organisation. The location in a ‘luxury’ hotel made it feel privileged (similar to the state/private education dichotomy referred to in many presentations). Personally I would have preferred to be on a university campus; this was alluded to in the opening speech but no reason given other than the Director was ‘persuaded’ to use the hotel. It felt a bit like being in Russia in the 1970’s when tourists were exposed to a carefully guided and controlled vision of the major cities with a deliberate barrier around the realities of day to day life.

The challenge of any conference is the writing up after the event. A realistic summary would run into thousands of words; reflecting and extracting common themes takes time and blogs are not ideal mediums for conference reports; this is far too long and breaks all my own blogging rules on brevity.  However, the value is in the production and even if this is for my eyes only; as 99% of blogs are, the discipline of revisiting notes and papers and attempting to identify the strands, is an important one.

My final comments are that conferences are expensive to attend, challenging to participate in and require high levels of hyperactivity to negotiate your way around differences in country, language, time, money, habit, culture and custom. They are also fabulous experiences; wonderful opportunities for networking and a real way of underpinning your work with research and publication. They also inevitably make you feel proud to be involved in the /UK education system which for all its faults is still held up as an exemplar to many other countries around the world.

digital overload

I’m a minimalist type of person. I don’t like clutter and I like my online life to be similarly organised. Multiple login details are frustrating especially when they don’t work. For example when trying to access a hotmail account (to find login details which I’ve forgotten) I get the following message: ‘The e-mail address or password is incorrect. Need help? ‘I do so I click and am asked for my email address; it’s the password I’ve forgotten  so I key in the address, I decipher the Captcha and I get the following two options: ‘Send yourself a password reset e-mail message.’ No good, I can’t get into my account because I’ve forgotten my password. ‘Provide account information and answer your secret question.’  But I don’t recognise the secret question never mind what answer I may have given – so I give up.

It’s a similar story with gmail. Google docs tells me ‘The username or password you entered is incorrect’ and offers me a ‘I cannot access my account’ link.  I select this and Google apologises for any inconvenience I’m experiencing and gives me a range of possible reasons. I select ‘Forgot my password’ and am invited to visit their  password recovery page. Here I’m not asked for my email address – which is a pity because I know that – instead they want my user name – I’m not sure what that is but I take a guess, decipher another Captcha, and am told initiating the password reset process involved following the instructions sent to my email address. As far as I know I haven’t come across ringassociates before so I give up.

With MySpace – I get off to a better start: ‘Forgot Your Password? No Worries… Just enter the email account you signed-up with, and we’ll mail you your password’. So I try an email address, and then another, both of which are valid, but all I get is ‘No such email address was found.’
And that’s the end – no more offers of help.

I’m tempted to try Facebook but feel that’s enough rejection for one day.  

I’m sure someone somewhere has collected all these attempts to automate the help process and I’m not sure if this blog is a sad reflection on my virtual organisation skills or an example of another battle in the war of the digital divide. Either way I’m logging off and going out for a walk instead.