Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Pundit's Folly

Jugend 1898 42
I know a great little book by Sinclair Ferguson, 'The Pundit's Folly' - the cover is as good as the contents... It's an adaptation of (from my searching) a cover of a magazine printed in 1898. The basic thing is that a masked clown is seen to dangle a crown above a crowd of people all trying to grasp it. This is reflecting on the way that we keep chasing that illusive 100% uptime whereas it is quite hard to achieve. I'll bet someone has done a curve plotting server uptime. The crowd in this case is the learning technologist (broadly defined, whether academic, 'para-academic', management or nobly propping up systems). Each one believes. But do their beliefs in or about technology (for automation or enhancement) take attention away from the 'irreducible distinctiveness' of all human beings? (a phrase attributable to Jeremy Knox ). For me, this is one of the important aspects of Bennett et al's new article in the BJET. We chase automation and/or enhancement but at what cost?
Bennett, S., Dawson, P., Bearman, M., Molloy, E. and Boud, D. (2016), How technology shapes assessment design: Findings from a study of university teachers. British Journal of Educational Technology. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12439

Monday, March 7, 2016

Book Review: Chris Jones "Networked Learning" 2015

So I review books occasionally for the British Journal of Educational Technology. Last year I put my hand up to review Chris Jones' new book and they sent me my copy. I am a busy guy and things do not always get the right priority. By some happenstance, Springer also sent a copy of the book to a scholar in Iran who has clearly got his act together better than me because when I eventually sent my review in (having actually read the book - it's a conscience thing) I was told by the reviews editor that BJET had already published a review on it!! So I thought I'd look elsewhere. Seems not many learning tech journals bother with book reviews now. I found one that did and I'm giving up on emailing them a third time. I have a blog. That'll do nicely. Here it is...

I was excited to see that Professor Chris Jones had published a substantial contribution to this topic. He was my personal tutor in Lancaster from 2002-2008 and I have since followed his published work with interest. He is one of the only scholars I would trust or expect to take this project on and carry it off. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Reviews, and being either side of the fine line

As I grapple with the submission system, awaiting a tweak by Jane, I've taken the moment to reflect on the reviews and the decisions about them which led me to not really do an awful lot of changes to the paper. The reviewing system is pretty grown-up really. You submit your full paper and hope that people like it. They give you feedback and it's up to you whether you take their advice. Then you submit finally and that is that. You're in the proceedings. In 2013 my paper was rejected, which was upsetting because it seems like they did not really read or, still less, understand the paper. But, hey-ho, I got over it quickly and attended the conference anyway. So it was a considerable relief when my submission was accepted this time around. The reviews were fascinating. The more positive one was keen for me to make clearer links with my theoretical frameworks, and, come the conference, I should give more of an introduction to activity theory for an audience, they thought, which might not be familiar with that tradition. In fact, I'd not mentioned activity theory at all anywhere in the paper, not even a hint of a triangle anywhere to be seen. And is there anything wrong with leaving theory more implicit, more light touch? It's a bit like a kids movie where there are gags for the kids and gags the grown-ups will get. I dont want to be a slave to any particular theory. I hope I've moved on from wearing my frameworks on my sleeve... with the exception of networked learning of course :)

The second reviewer was more penetrating...
I should have worked harder to take up the analysis of textual practices rather than being taken up with the technology. This one vexed me because I know they're sort-of right but I cant ignore the fact that the technology was up to something here - semiotically or just from the sheer affordance of sharing information that would have otherwise remained locked away in cabinets or inboxes. Was a claim to be saying something about learning here spurious? Have I, by discussing user engagement, just caved in to the curse of technological determinism/myopia, again... ?

Indeed, and I get really sanguine now... Probably my paper gets no where near depicting 'learning'. So I admit defeat - learning is truly an illusive phenomenon and it's got the better of me again. If you're coming, feel free to politely slip out before I 'die' more at its hands. The only thing I can say by way of excuse is that this was originally designed as a doctoral paper and so there is, of necessity, 'too much on the plate'. I happen to like my nachos that way... Perhaps the thesis will help wean me off that when I'm writing.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Embedding digital scholarship requires academic leadership

Me in Sorrento's with my hat and a macchiato I am just really pleased with the way my little group of BSc students have risen to the challenge of submitting a "first 500 words on Evidence-based practice" to peermark. They are very lacking in confidence and find academic work thoroughly alien to their world of clinical expertise. It is a real joy and privilege to share a room with these guys as they open up about the challenges of embodied knowledge practice and the extreme skill that they deploy on a daily basis. But now they have to do knowledge work of a scholarly kind, and very often that is 'digital scholarship'. As module leader, I'm bringing them on in small steps and they're responding famously (we argue about whether these are 'small' steps :). As far as why this is happening, Glover et al's recent paper points back in my direction...
However, the overarching theme evident from the interviews was that the preference of the module leader is the main driver of the use of technology in submission and feedback, even when they will be taking little part in the process.
Any success I'm reporting here is not intended as a cheap boast. For me it highlights the necessary agency of academics to set the direction and expectations for what happens in terms of embedding digital literacy practices into the fabric of core learning and teaching activity. Something too many shy away from. Perhaps there is an analogy with children and the significance of their birth parents. No para-academic (e.g. learning technologist, librarian, administrator) can carry exactly the same weight of authority. We're living in times with earnest attempts to apply a 'division of labour' to university activities with the promise of more student centredness, maximising consistency, increasing efficiency and driving down costs. Whether or not these are worthy and entirely necessary goals in a time of 'austerity', we should consider whether tweaking the academic out of higher education may leave us with something other than 'higher education'. Is that what we want and who decides? For my part, I'll do what I can to help my students develop current scholarly practices and habits, many of which will incur 'the digital'.

GLOVER, Ian et al. Making connections: technological interventions to support students in using, and tutors in creating, assessment feedback. Research in Learning Technology, [S.l.], v. 23, oct. 2015. ISSN 2156-7077. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 29 Oct. 2015. doi:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

NL an optomistic enterprise

We've been reading Feenberg (1999) and Hodgeson et al. (2012) on the doctoral programme. I studied economics a little bit when I worked for a bank and at Aberdeen. But I suppose many people will have heard of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'... It helped me to apply this to 'technology' when reading Feenberg. I think Feenberg is explaining that different ontologies leave one with very different views as to whether 
  1. We can/can't really control 'the invisible hand'
  2. Does that matter? 
In the case of Marx, he is saying that not only can we not control the invisible hand, the hand's effects are, at worst neutral. However, some, like Feenberg (also cites Foucault and Marcuse who I have barely heard of still less read), are deeply suspicious of what the hand ('hooded claw' better?) is really up to.
There could be a connection between Feenberg's argument, that we 'should be asserting human control' and Hodgson et al's stated ontology (p292) for networked learning, and even the expanded definition of networked learning which, enacted through programmes like the Lancaster PhD, pushes back against strong tide of 'economic-pragmatic discourse' (Hodgson et al 292). Hodgson and Feenberg's view of the world 'as we would like it to be', may well clash violently with the daily realities of, say, learning technologists who are...
  1. trotting out multimedia at the bequest of unwitting lecturers with no better agenda than that it could look good/modern, appeal to the millennial students (sic) and may save them time/effort in the long run
  2. Rolling out moocs, to pay their mortgage and other bills, as an extension of the university's marketing department
Do you recognise these 'value laden' examples as such? Are they real to you? If they are, does that really matter? If it does, can/should we be doing anything about it? Feenberg is saying we certainly can and should.
Do we agree with the political angle in these readings, however ambitious it might be? After all, there is a sense in which, on programme like the one I'm on, we're very much part of attempts to enact it - if you have or are on such a programme, how was/is it for you? You're paying handsomely for the 'bus ride', did you realise where it was hoping to take you?
I spent a while yesterday discussion a proprietary tool with our learning technologist who was bemoaning the impossibility of making 'progress' with staff who are so ardently Luddite, in their opinion. This is a fairly typical moan for a learning technologist to make, and it falls some way short of 'the Feenberg perspective'. What would be the impact of such a blithe embrace of 'all that technology can offer' on your place and even society as a whole. Would we become super efficient but/and/or loose our humanity in the process? Which of those things really matter?

Or should we be enacting learning designs which are 'appropriate and suited to live in a digitally connected and networked world where sharing and collaborative ways of working are the norm rather than the exception' (Hodgson et al p292 again) and 'we all live happily ever after'?
Networked learning, to the likes of Hodgson et al, is an optimistic enterprise... What alternatives are there when (if?) one sees 'market failure' in all directions?
  • Feenberg, Andrew 1999 Questioning Technology. London ; New York: Routledge.
  • Hodgson, Vivien, David McConnell, and Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld 2012 The Theory, Practice and Pedagogy of Networked Learning. In Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning. Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld, Vivien Hodgson, and David McConnell, eds. Pp. 291–305. New York, NY: Springer New York.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reporting back from the Networked Learning Seminar at Cardiff 6th May 2015

On Wednesday 6th May 2015, two friends from Bristol University traveled to Cardiff to head up our networked learning seminar: Dr Sue Timmis and Dr Jane Williams. At just after 1pm, around 30 of us were welcomed by Patricia Price (Pro Vice Chancellor Pro Vice-Chancellor, Student Experience & Academic Standards) who was on hand to open the seminar, kindly sponsored by the recently formed College of Biomedical & Life Sciences. I was personally very thankful to Emma Humphries from the College. Her fulsome help with the administration of the seminar was superb - it was so reassuring all through the surprisingly long run-up to the seminar.

Sue Timmis expertly traced out the tensions in Higher Education that keep the learning and teaching theory-practice gap wide open. For example, that theories of learning are far more contested than those within many disciplines. However, Sue challenged us to seek and engage students in participatory learning activities.  PowerPoint MP3

Jane Williams discussed her work with medical students who elect to develop e-learning materials for their optional module. Unlike the more programmatic materials developed by the department, the students target courseware that directly addresses content areas which they found challenging, thus increasing its value for ensuing cohorts. This was a perfect example of ‘participatory’ collaborative and cooperative learning that Sue had offered as a means of enriching and deepening learning. MP3

After a brief comfort-break, it was the turn of the Cardiff three... 
Karl Luke outlined a small-scale study in which he explored Nina Dohn's critique of the assumptions made in education when Web 2.0 tools (especially wikis) are deployed in hopes that they will succeed unproblematically. He went on to offer practical solutions to Dohn’s points. PowerPoint MP3
  Joe Nicholls used his slot to present long-standing work around 'learning literacies'. He argued that only a fully integrated approach to deploying these literacies could be effective and that, even then, context was key for securing worthwhile outcomes. PowerPoint MP3
Sadly, a few things, not just my relaxed approach to time-keeping, made us run out of time, leaving me with just a few minutes before the close. But even in a very short presentation there were practical and theoretical lessons gleaned from a mini-project carried out last year into aspects of informal learning by staff using an innovative application of blogs for shared academic supervision record-keeping. PowerPoint MP3

I was personally very pleased with the way that the seminar gave a real flavor of the conference. Networked learning does not do 'snake oil' and that can be confusing in learning technology circles... much the same as when my landline rings these days, I expect a sales pitch in broken English. The source of networked learning's 'non-splashy' power is in the humanistic values, transparent evidence and scholarly insight, and that should be good enough for anyone. Concluding comments MP3

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Networked Learning Seminar 6th May 2015 1-4pm 2.21 Tŷ Dewi Sant, Heath Park

The Networked Learning Conference runs biennially, and next year is the 10th at Lancaster University. So this year is 'fallow', interregnum, 'writing up' space in time for the 5th October deadline... I thought it might be nice to organise a 'fireside chat' among friends who happened to be doing advanced degrees in learning technology. I wanted us to share some of the good stuff we've learned on our studies that otherwise might never see the light of day. Probably we'd ask if anyone was around and wanted to listen in, probe a bit, etc.
I'm delighted to say that it has turned into a College-sponsored seminar, bringing the networked learning marque and experts Dr Sue Timmis and Dr Jane Williams to Cardiff next Wednesday afternoon (here's a link to their paper from the last conference).

We're dividing the three hours up as follows:

13:00-14:00 Welcome and introductions, followed by:
  • Dr Sue Timmis - Senior Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at University of Bristol Graduate School of Education
    “Mind the gap! The power and the challenges of connecting theory AND practice in University learning and teaching”
  • Dr Jane Williams – Director of Technology Enhanced Learning Team at University of Bristol Medical School
    "Handing over the keys: unlocking the potential of students as developers and researchers of elearning"
14:00-14:30 Refreshments/networking

14:30-15:30 Three short papers from:
15:30-16:00 Panel summary and Q&A to close.

If you're free, do please feel free to come along too!