OER; more digital divisions

OER was highlighted in the conference keynotes but there is clearly resistance to the principle of open access as well as support. Here, the digital divide widens; on the one side are the pioneers of Web 2.0 technologies advocating the openness of educational opportunities; free access to papers, journals and resources, while on the other side traditional scholars value their freedom of academic choice to remain cloistered in ivory towers.

Terry Anderson (Keynote 2) quoted his experience at Abuthasca where academics have successfully resisted the call for compulsory depositing their work in the institutional repository.  Instead the university has had to compromise, making it a recommendation rather than a rule.

Projects like CamFed the computer training charity ( see ‘where the water meets the sky’ blog post here) demonstrate the value of free access to the Google family in changing lives but the divisions caused by the affordability of education in Africa are every bit as great as those in the west. Here the traditional perception of higher education as an esoteric knowledge requiring [financial] initiation into its mysteries is well embedded. It will take more than the emergence of the possibility offered by Web 2.0 tools if the institution of academia is to be challenged. History shows us that the most successful downfalls come from within; the Trojan horse in this case is probably still under construction but will most likely originate from student demand. Challenging the gatekeepers of knowledge – and their licence locking mechanisms – will need lateral thinking; not releasing the knowledge already imprisoned but rethinking the way that new knowledge is constructed and distributed in the first place.

Sleepless in Vancouver

 If distance is measured by time zones then I’m only 7 hours away although it took 10 hours to fly here – to be 12 hours behind must be as far away as you can get. Even at a distance of 7 hours it’s impressive to think I’m writing this before you are reading it – or are you reading it before it was written? This must be what jet lag does to you.  I can understand that I’m sleeping during my day and trying to function during my night but when I fly back home – what happens then? Hopefully I get realigned.

The conference themes are openness; open source, open content, open doors – everything is open – its the end of cubicle culture – we are all sharing a collaborative global educational network. Now I like my cubicle – I don’t agree that Second Life is a collective experience, the noise of the digital crowd tweeting is getting on my nerves and while I accept there are limitations to the number of variations on a wheel I’m not 100% sure of the difference between plagiarism and creative commons. It seems that while all sharing is equal there will always be some that is more equal than others. Surprisingly few of the big name internet players have signed the The Capetown Open Educational Declaration.  

There must be a term for conference overload? Conflerred? Confrenced? If anyone was secretly hoping Web 2.0 would go away then I’m sorry – it isn’t going to happen. You need to blog – it’s your digital identity and not having one says more about you than any number of tweets can do. Web 2.0 now has its own timeline. Presentations that start by explaining what a wiki is and where the name comes from are so ‘last year’.

This year is the death of the VLE – yes, Blackboard is about the most unpopular word you can mention. Did you know that this monolithic VLE sucks you in, ties you down and once it has you it won’t let go and you’ll never ever be free. As someone who’s used to defending Blackboard on campus, accustomed to finding something good and useful to say about it, I’ve been surprised at the animosity. The whole concept of a VLE is a bit dodgy but you are allowed to say Moodle or Elgg so long as you stress their customisability (and don’t mention that you need a technical support team on standby)

Yawn :-O  night all…..


The International Conference on Information Communication Technologies in Education (ICICTE) was held in Corfu 9-11 July and focused on the changing nature of higher education and the implications of this for students and staff. I was half expecting a ‘techie’ based conference but found presentations and workshops embedded in pedagogical frameworks and my paper on the design of learning for distance delivery was well aligned with the conference keynote and themes. The challenge of blogging a conference is to be succinct so here is my blog summary.


  • the changing nature of the student – student as ‘consumer’ with increasing numbers entering H.E. students are the new drivers for change
  • the changing role of staff from deliverers of ‘knowledge’ to guides for internet browsing and inquiry based learning
  • the changing nature of the H.E. institution as validator and mediator of knowledge rather than the gate-keeper
  • the ‘commodification’ of H.E. as academic capital; ivory towers changing into golden arches as university’s become service industries/providers
  • international vision of senior management that ICT is a cost effective solution for delivering H.E. to a widening participation audience
  • increased demand for H.E. is happening alongside mass reduction in funding


  • costs associated with ICT are higher in terms of finance and resources than traditional face to face delivery but senior management still see ICT as quick fix solution.
  • increased use of ICT raises digital literacy and digital competency issues for both students and staff
  • changing location of knowledge – no longer esoteric and behind campus doors but increasingly freely available – raises issues of management of mass electronic library resources and critical digital literacy abilities


  • Shift happens – higher education is changing and its future is online – the tide of education technology is unstoppable.
  • Bridges must be built between the technology and pedagogy if traditional H.E. qualities of critical thinking by independent self-aware individuals is not to be lost
  • The role of students in providing support digital confidence and competence should not be underestimated
  • Staff have to engage with virtual learning – CPD through PDP could provide initial steps if senior management recognise the need for strategic direction
  • Higher Education will continue to be an exciting, rewarding environment in which to work

I’ve come away with my head spinning as usual with the wider international picture; networking with educators from different countries reinforces how the UK is seen as exemplifying all that is relevant and important about higher education.

I’ve gained increased awareness of the potential role of eportfolios and the importance of digital identity for everyone and personally I like the idea of a virtual one-stop-shop, that can say more about you than a CV ever can. The question is one of choice – WordPress, FaceBook, Mahara – realistically one area is enough to maintain –which one you choose is becoming the question – not whether or not you do it in the first place. Like it or not, online identity is fast becoming non-negotiable.

The conference website is here and the organisers have a produced a CD-ROM containing all the peer reviewed presentation papers; light, portable, saves trees and is transferable from one environment to another – the future is indeed online!

Slave to Outlook

I hope I never get blasé about presenting papers; the opportunity for an international perspective on education is a fantastic privilege especially if it involves a country I haven’t travelled to before. But however well prepared to try to be, returning home is fraught. Tired, disorientated, laden with practicalities like fridge filling, post opening, clothes washing and generally catching up and then – of course – the email. I have an Xda (which doubles up as my own personal technological challenge but that’s a different story). It enables me to keep in touch but its capacity for reading and replying to lengthy emails is limited; all those emails dashed off a quick ‘thanks and I’ll get back to you next week’ – not to mention those not replied to then but need an answer now – are all roosting in the inbox, waiting for action.

Do we make ourselves slaves to Outlook? It can certainly be quicker, easier and sometimes more effective than other forms of communication; it gives you an audit trail, you can sort it and filter it and linked to your calendar it’s an excellent organising tool. But no matter how hard you try to stay organised while you’re away, any first day back after an absence has to include it and that’s where the ‘fraught-ness’ comes in. I’m wondering if it’s just me, or if others have noticed it too, that there seems to be more now than when I started. Is it possible that the more you do then the more you create? That this breaks all the rules which say tackling a problem diminishes it when as far as your email is concerned you would actually be better leaving it alone!

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.