Tipping the work/life balance in the wrong direction…

We all have different stress warning signs. The one which works for me is not blogging. The realisation I’ve missed not one, not two but three weeks – and scarcely noticed – is a signal my work-load needs attention.

Writing is my favourite form of expression, so long as it’s digital. Give me a laptop with a word processor and I’m happy – most of the time. Having a ‘To Do’ list which is always on the increase, regardless of how much gets done and crossed off – is not so good.

Workload is a contentious topic. It’s excessive for everyone. The idea of 9-5 with work-free evenings and weekends is no longer an option. The challenge is to manage the work/life balance and normally I do it well; using weekends to catch up with friends with a walk on the beach, with family over a dvd and bacon buttie – plus life on my allotment – this gives me everything I need – so what’s gone wrong?

Is it – dare I say – the phd? I suspect this has tipped the balance yet I know I’m incredibly lucky. My doctoral research is around my primary work interest – digital education – and my reading has been a fantastic opportunity to revisit old studies on the social impact of technology, in particular through culture. It’s all good but I’ve reached the point where what needs to be done is greater than the time I have to do it in – and I feel guilty writing this blog post when there are so many other tasks I should be getting on with instead.

It takes a brave person to admit to work overload. So often it’s seen as a reflection on poor time-management or self-organization.  I’m not even sure this blog post is a good idea – but I realise if I’m not blogging then I’m not reflecting,  and if I’m not taking time to apply some critical thought to my practice, then I’m no longer being effective, and that’s no good to anyone 🙁

TELDA Learning Block Three: OER and MOOC – Summary

It can be time consuming to search through the mass of content labelled as OER. Where quality resources exist, they are most likely to be professionally produced and supported, for example through the OU’s Open Learn. This raises the issue of the extent to which academic and professional service staff can be expected to be content creators.

Absence of appropriate subject level OER this led to opposing approaches – some felt it was an opportunity to release content as OER while others felt this might detract from interest in taking the course. ‘Open Educational Resources: An Introduction for Managers and Policymakers’ from the Higher Education Academy includes the VC at Lincoln saying “The most compelling argument for the release of OER is the Marketing opportunities that it provides. The more you release, the more people know about you.” The OU use this approach in Open Learn; offering ‘tasters’ from full courses which have to be paid for, yet as this activity shows, this approach to OER is not universally accepted and OER as undermining the market base should be taken seriously.

Experience with MOOC was mixed. Most found useful content either for work or interest – but expressed concerns about design and delivery. The media hyped ‘threat’ to the future of higher education was not generally supported by observations. MOOC can be useful for training purposes and introducing subjects like maths where there are a higher amount of ‘fixed’ answers but their application to ‘flexible’ subjects like philosophy and the humanities requires different approaches. There is still much development work to be done to show how MOOC can offer viable ‘free’ alternatives to the university experience and certification of learning. However, this is not to say they should be ignored.

The  open education movement takes familiarity with online environments for granted.  As society moves ever closer to ‘digital by default’ policy and practice, the voice of the digitally marginalised is becoming invisible. When the majority of platforms in the public sphere are digital, those without the means of participation are effectively silenced. Web designers and developers are building increasingly inaccessible learning environments depending on a MEE Model of computer access which assumes all users have a Mouse for navigation, Eyes to see the screen and Ears listen to content. This does not reflect the diversity of ways in which people operate online but as a result of the MEE Model, provision of content (especially multimedia) in alternative formats and with appropriate user controls is not always evident. The OU resources generally follow accessibility guidelines, although broken links to essential transcripts are evident. Outside the OU, a major problem with repository content is the lack of evidence of inclusive practice or minimum quality standards. In many cases, ‘exclusion’ is not deliberate but results from the current low profile of digitally accessible practices.

The recent media MOOC hype has not only overshadowed OER but in some cases MOOC platforms are blurring the boundaries between them.  There are tensions around the quality and quantity of OER and at the present time, MOOCs are producing more questions than answers in particular around issues of quality, inclusion, accreditation and cost. Opening up access to online education aligns with the philosophy and practice of early internet pioneers such as Tim Berners Lee (http://www.w3.org/1998/02/Potential.html) but with freedom comes responsibility and the higher education sector has a valuable role to play in shaping the future of open practices.

TELEDA Learning Block Two: Connectivism Summary

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age banner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Says it all!

‘VLEs are being used as a tool for social control by post industrial capitalism’. Discuss.

I get protective about Blackboard. As a system administrator and advocate of the potential for VLE to cross boundaries of time and distance, I’m easily irritated with comments like ‘VLEs are being used as a tool for social control by post industrial capitalism’. I was given this blog post  Zombies, Technology and Capitalism http://digitalscholar.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/zombies-technology-capitalism/ in a phd supervision meeting; I guess to see my response. Here it is.

Grounds for the statement? It seems VLEs ‘…replace face-t0-face ‘human’ learning with undead digital teaching….have rapidly spread across the sector (virally?) without being explicitly demanded by either teachers or students….the embedded pedagogy of these VLEs is restrictive and they offer a level of social control and conformity not possible with more traditional teaching practices’.

Mmmm….quite an indictment of my role as Learning and Teaching Coordinator, supporting staff to make effective use of technology to support their students. The author is writing a book chapter for an interdisciplinary anthology Zombies in the Academy: living death in higher education. http://zombieacademy.wordpress.com/cfp/ which seeks to offer ‘critical accounts of the contemporary university as a living dead culture.’ So, extending the referential signifier of a cultural trope into a previously unused location? Or alternatively, finding a new way to package and sell a product?

I hope our chapter doesn’t fall into a lazy F2F good/ online bad dualism.’ writes the author in reply to a comment supporting VLEs.

Me too. I hope the language of technological determinism is used to praise as well as condemn.  I hope it recognises the problem is less about how VLEs weren’t ‘explicitly demanded by either teachers or students’ and more about how we were simply expected to know how to use them. From the start, priority was given to embedding the systems. The poor practice, which gets dragged out repeatedly, derives as much from insufficient access to specialist learning-technology resources, and support for the shift from f2f to digital pedagogy, as any desire to impose social control and conformity.

We need to be reminded of potential affordances alongside over-publicised failings. People are quick to criticise and slow to praise. Focusing on the ‘level of managerial control afforded by VLEs over F2F’ is to miss their opportunities for flexible and distance learning, widening participation, crossing boundaries of time and distance, sharing practice and creating networks for knowledge collaboration and exchange. The blame is unfair. Saying the VLE replaces ‘face-to-face ‘human’ learning with undead digital teaching’ is to criticise the daily reality of thousands of academic and professional service staff across the sector, making the best of the tools in their hands to enhance learning opportunities for their students. Effective online learning is a specialism yet staff are expected to  demonstrate competence regardless of their own subject expertise. There are answers such as embedding digital scholarship into teacher education programmes, offering small amounts of development funding for digital enhancement, treating digital literacies as equal to text literacy and numeracy. What doesn’t help is to replicate and reinforce the same old tired arguments.  Alignment with zombie culture is neither clever nor witty; it’s discourteous and unkind.


Here are some useful reminders of how it all began.

Flying not flapping: a strategic framework for e-learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education institutions by Gilly Salmon (2005) http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance/mediazoo/media/Flying%20not%20flapping.pdf

Implementing a learning technology strategy: top–down strategy meets bottom–up culture by Bernard Lisewski (2004)  http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/coaction/index.php/rlt/article/viewFile/11250/12943


a rose is a rose is a rose etc

Of all the arts, poetry suffers from dependency on personal opinion. I’ve been re-reading Saussure for my phd and reflecting on its application to poetry. Early 20th century Structuralists suggested meaning derives from subjective interpretation rather than any externally fixed truth. Semiotics , the science of signs, was key to Structuralist belief in the possibility of uncovering  the multiple ‘truths’ of social reality. In a ‘Course in General Linguistics’, Saussure challenged realism (the world can be known) with linguistic relativism (the world can only be known through the structures of language). Structuralism revealed language as a system of signifiers (the word) and signified (the idea the word conveys) where connections between them are cultural and arbitrary rather than innate or fixed. Single meaning is replaced with multiple possibilities or references eg roses have become associated with cultural images of love, passion, beauty, valentines, romance, gardening etc. None of these describe the flower but are all part of the agreed consensus of meaning around the signifier Rose.

Death of the Author cartoon by Donald Palmer 1997

This stress on referential reality complicates the challenge of poetry to create maximum resonance with minimum words. Resonance is personal and subjective. Barthes  understood this when he challenged modernist notions of authority and knowledge production by suggesting the author is dead. In his 1977 essay Death of the Author, (http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf) Barthes says the author no longer has authority and there is no such thing as a singular narrative. Instead the interpretation of text becomes a collaborative process between author and audience: ‘…a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue…but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader’   Barthes concludes ‘Classical criticism has never paid any attention to the reader…the writer is the only person in literature…it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’. The poet has to work twice as hard to find the words. Not only must they say what they want but will also say something similar to reader. In a world where truths are subsumed with multiple possibilities, the challenge is irresistible

Cartoon by Donald D Palmer 1997

On libraries, books and touch screens…

This weekend I visited the John Rylands Library in Manchester; a beautiful building in multiple ways. There’s the soft red brickwork, slim gothic vaults and arches, venetian glass windows and unexpectedly genuine Victorian plumbing and tiling in the basement facilities.  The Burning Bright William Blake exhibition was a bonus, as was the visiting group of Steampunk enthusiasts. Their Victorian costumes blended with the environment so well it was those dressed for the 21st century who looked out of place.

The University of Lincoln Library is getting an extension as part of the University’s Estates Masterplan. This will provide more space for computers, laptops and bookable rooms – but not books. http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2013/03/university-of-lincoln-begins-work-on-library-extension/ The idea of a library build to house books appears to be a dying one, if not already dead. Excepting the British Library, there can’t be many new library builds being planned these days. Amazon says sales of its Kindle e-books overtook those of printed books in 2012, although they’re unlikely to say anything different. http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240160961/UK-eBooks-outstripping-printed-books-says-Amazon There were a few lucky souls working in the John Rylands building this weekend, but the majority of people were visitors. The atmosphere was much more museum or church than library. For most of us, the faceless internet has become our library and it isn’t a beautiful place. Dominated by advertising, we can’t be far from being offered a premium rate ad-free service. Those who can afford it will get a clean, improved experience while those who can’t will be reduced to searching in an environment looking more like the pages of a shopping catalogue than anything meaningful.

I travel with a kindle but never use it at home. They’re probably easier to read but it’s not the same. A book is a kinaesthetic experience as well as a cognitive one and there’s something symbolic about opening the covers, turning the pages and releasing the memories contained within them.  To reinvent libraries as museums or churches would be to acknowledge their social and cultural importance but it loses the lived experience. In these days of keyboards and touch screens, this is what we need to hold onto, less we wipe out from history the sensory reality of books.

TELEDA Learning Block One: Digital Native Digital Immigrant debate

TELEDA’s Learning Block One discussion was around two views on education technology presented by Prensky and Selwyn in these papers

plus the video Digital Natives (3.08) from  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwKD-GuKkFc Below is a summary of comments and responses.

Prensky’s conception generational digital difference was absorbed into early research into education in the 21st century as well as continuing to exist within popular culture.   Selwyn offers both an overview of this research and a calmer perspective. Where young people are born into digital ways of working this does not determine a) the ways in which they use technology nor b) suggest the need for dismantling the curriculum. The focus should be less on the tools and more on the way in which the tools can be used.

The discussion were quick to point out how the ‘principles’ of learning carry on regardless, the technology may be changing the way we do things – but not the nature of things we have to do.  The ‘fundamentals of education remain the same’, students may sit in lectures tweeting and texting or have Facebook open in class, but there is still the need to grasp concepts and apply them to practice.  Comments suggested the image of the competent digital native does not match the reality –  some students embrace technology more than others but it is used to varying degrees, competence with Facebook does not equate with being ‘techno savvy’ and any group contains a mix of users, those adopting new technologies and those needing support and encouragement.

Divides are less between Prensky’s  natives and immigrants but constructed from access parameters and the differing ways access is used. Selwyn adopts a critical approach to technology for education; one which relates access and use to existing ‘social fault lines’ suggesting ‘…some social groups of young people appear to be as ‘digitally excluded’ as older generations, albeit in ways which are less apparent to adult commentators (p 14 ref Selwyn and Facer 2009). Situating educational technology within a broader social, cultural and political framework lies beyond the scope of this short course, which is fundamentally about the practicalities of teaching and learning in a digital age. However, the social impact of the internet and the relationship between digital exclusion and existing structures of marginalisation and disadvantage should not be ignored.

Learning Block One offered opportunities to consider how technology fits within individual practice. Comments suggest participants were not persuaded by the view of technology as determining change but the opportunities for enhancing teaching and learning were recognised. Within this is a resource implication. Where workloads are already stretched to capacity it can be difficult to absorb new ways of working and to learn new skills and competencies. Once way to manage this can be online communities of practice which is the intention of the course; to provide a place where the practicalities of teaching and learning in a digital age can be shared and discussed while not losing sight of the deeper structural issues underpinning adoption and use.

More about Prensky in this blog post here: https://suewatling.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2013/02/17/revisiting-the-digital-nativeimmigrant-debate/

TELEDA Learning Block One: Getting Started

The Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age pilot had an excellent start last week.  A traditional open introductions thread on the discussion board surfaced a range of reasons for taking the course, including wanting to work smarter online, discover more about how online environments can be used to support learning and how to develop effective online engagement. There were also an interesting number of ‘fears’.  Uncovering the perceived challenges of teaching and learning in a digital age can be are useful indicators for planning, design and delivery so it’s always useful to offer the opportunity for surfacing them.  Losing the relationship and emotional dimensions of face-to-face learning is a common concern.  One solution is to try to ensure the affordances of the VLE (e.g. 24/7 access across boundaries plus the flexibility of asynchronous communication) and the disadvantages (e.g. the potential loneliness of the distance learner) are balanced by factoring in support and interaction on a regular basis.

Reaching students who don’t engage naturally with online forms of communication is another issue. Digital courses which lose the nuances of face-to-face engagement tend to privilege the techno-savvy and those who prefer a more ‘invisible’ form of interaction. The question of ‘lurking’ (being there silently) can pose a delicate balancing act between encouragement and scaring off!

We’re all becoming accustomed to having infinite amounts of information in our lives but the fear of being overwhelmed by content is never far from the surface. TELEDA offers  pic’mix approach to content ingestion  Resources are divided into Core and Extended. Activities derive directly from Core reading and all materials are presented in a format which offers brief overviews with signposts for further information to suit individual requirements and interests.  

The issue of supporting digital literacies was raised; a key aspect of any online learning experience as so much of the way we manage ourselves online is to do with individual confidence and competencies in virtual ways of working. Digital literacies and digital scholarship are essentially integral to the whole course which recognises how managing effectiveness within online learning environments is problematised precisely because there is no ‘one size fits all’ model of engagement. We don’t (yet) embed digital literacies into the curriculum or teacher education and the lecturer often has little support in the shift from front of classroom to invisible facilitator of faceless students online.   

The TELEDA learning blocks cover different aspects of design and delivery with attention to digital ways of working and opportunities to engage in collaborative online activities. I hope the opportunities for sharing practice will be a strength of this course which aims to support the exploration of different ways of working online and to assess their effectiveness in a constructive, collegial environment. TELEDA offers a fundamentally pragmatic approach, one where experience is recognised as the best way forward for application of the theory.

Open for business!

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age banner

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age is a short course (30 M Level CATS) delivered and assessed entirely online (12 weeks teaching/12 weeks eportfolio construction).  This course is an output from the 12 month HEA/JISC funded project ‘Embedding OER Practice’ at the University of Lincoln http://oer.lincoln.ac.uk. OER (Open Educational Resources) are teaching materials made freely available under a Creative Commons licence http://creativecommons.org.  OER are stored in repositories e.g. JORUM at http://www.jorum.ac.uk/ and MERLOT at http://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm Open courses are called MOOC, Massive Open Online Courses, and leading platforms are Coursera at https://www.coursera.org who offer free courses on Arts, Sciences, Humanities, Maths and Stats and other subjects.  MOOC platforms include Udacity at https://www.udacity.com/ and the Open University Open Learn site at http://www.open.edu/openlearn/

MOOCing is an excellent way to explore a variety of online learning designs and collaborations. Like OER, MOOC raise important questions of authenticity and certification as well as the future direction of higher education in a digital age. A comprehensive understanding of the open education movement, and a scholarly approach to the development of teaching practice in open and online contexts, are integral to T and L in a Digital Age, which also looks at online learning design, online communication, assessment and feedback and digital scholarship and literacies with assessment by eportfolio.

Effectiveness within virtual environments derives from experience of learning online. Education Technologies have been around for over a decade but adoption only comes from applying the tools to practice. Too often technologies are promoted without first hand experience and this course is designed to offer that experience in a supportive, collegial style.

The pilot begins on 4 March with no cost to UL staff. If you are interested in joining the pilot, or would like further information, please contact Sue Watling, swatling@lincoln.ac.uk  

Revisiting Prensky’s digital native/immigrant debate

Prensky’s polarisation of students and teachers into digital natives and immigrants was simplistic, but the KIS (Keep It Simple) approach can be an effective stimulant for debate. Prensky has been responsible for a lot of debate. Dig underneath the surface and the core of Prensky’s polemic remains relevant. The question of how can the social shift to digital ways of working best enhance teaching and learning remains unanswered.  Prensky was right. Those with Britannica feet are being replaced by generations whose only reference source is Google. The image below is simplistic but contains a valuable message for anyone wanting to see digital literacies and scholarship embedded into the curriculum.  How can an institution manage change and adapt to the digital impact of technology?

Prensky - what children should learn in schools

Neil Selwyn* offers a realistic appraisal of Prensky, usefully reminding us of the social shaping of technology and how usage mirrors existing social structures. The  literature of digital divides should underpin all policy and strategic approaches. In the meantime digital technology is becoming more pervasive. Soon won’t need the T in ICT; it will be taken for granted. It’s ironic how the strata of digital engagement has ‘shallowness’ as the deepest and widest layer.

The key problem is the solid curriculum. It seems unable to flex enough to incorporate essential requirements for the century, namely individuals who can tell the difference between knowledge, information and personal opinion – online. The skills to manage vertical searching and differentiate between authenticity and conspiracy theories are the core basics of digital literacies, alongside the presentation of self and parameters of access.  However, embedding all these into the curriculum, and focusing on digital graduate attributes, is only part of the answer.

It isn’t only about student education, it’s about teacher education too. In 2001 Prensky was saying ‘today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach’ but a decade later no one is saying today’s education system is no longer training the teachers it needs for a digital age. Calling people natives or immigrants drew attention to digital technology for education, but as well as redesigning the curriculum for students, we need to revisit support and resources for the teachers who are implementing it, something  Prensky, Selwyn  and other contemporary commentators appear – so far – to have missed.  

Educating the ‘Digital Natives’ (2011) from Neil Selwyn’s Education and Technology, London: Continuum –available from Continuum (now Bloomsbury) Companion website http://www.continuumbooks.com/CompanionWebsites/book-homepage.aspx?BookId=158591