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Diving for pearls

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sun, 21/01/2018 - 12:27

For the upcoming REF, the OER Hub are one of the possible impact case studies for the OU. We applied for a small bit of internal funding, and last week all decamped to a cottage in Gloucestershire for five days to put in an intensive writing session. This is not a commentary on the REF, an analysis of the neoliberalisation of education or the dangers of metrics, just some reflections on that writing process (so lower your expectations).

Firstly, a dedicated (isolated) week is definitely the way to go. We had been provided with a set of documents to complete by our excellent REF advisor, Jane Seale. But without a dedicated, prolonged period to devote to these, it would have taken months to complete. Also, the intensity of focusing on only this, rather than fitting in amongst other pressing demands, meant that the quality of what we produced was greatly improved (I think). So, a week away may seem like an indulgence, but was probably more productive and efficient in the long run.

Secondly, impact in higher education research is difficult, and often indirect. The dream type of impact is you do research, it leads to a change in Government policy on health or schooling. But that’s actually quite rare. In the last REF they didn’t allow impact within higher education to count, which is especially problematic for us, as part of our aim has been to work with researchers elsewhere and build OER research capacity. This time they may be a bit more lenient, but impact on other researchers is still frowned upon.

Thirdly, we’re all collaborative and supportive in the OER community (yes we are). Claiming impact sometimes seems like you need to ego and lack of shame of Donald Trump. We were solely responsible for everything that has happened and invented it all! This rather grates with the collegial, sharing network we are part of. So there is a tension in the process between needing to promote yourself and claim impact while also wanting to acknowledge the diverse, distributed nature of influence.

Lastly, we wanted to stress how the process by which we have conducted research, namely making openness (through social media, open access publications, open data, our open researchers pack, open courses, etc) is as impactful as the research itself. I feel that we made a good stab at this, but I wonder how much it will mean to assessors who are from a ‘traditional’ approach.

We’re writing this up now, and have identified lots of bits of evidence and testimonials we need to gather. Which means we may be coming to you for some input soon. I guess if I was to offer any advice, it would be to definitely try and carve out a dedicated chunk of time, to clearly work through some distinct messages you want to convey and then match these with evidence. You may need to then go through several iterations of this to find the best match of evidence to message.

Alone in Blogistan

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 04/01/2018 - 21:19

One of the books I read last year was a happy confluence of factors. The book was Hans Fallada’s war time tale of quiet German resistance, Alone in Berlin (aka Every Man Dies Alone). It related to the political situation and rise of the right (the frothing demand of British newspapers to crush opposition to Brexit was straight from this era), a trip my daughter and I took to Berlin, and my academic interest in online communication. And it is this last element that I’ve been pondering on and off since reading it last October.

For those who don’t know the story, it follows the tale of a nondescript Berlin couple, the Quangels, whose only son dies early in the war. As an act of resistance they start writing postcards with anti-Hitler messages such as “The Führer has murdered my son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world”. These are deposited in different places for strangers to find. This is their small scale stand, an “irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it.”

It is a largely gloomy, hopeless book since most of the messages are handed in to the authorities immediately, through fear of being caught in possession of them. And anyone associated with the Quangels ends up detained and executed. Their campaign has no impact and causes misery. But yet the act of resistance, of communication is itself worthwhile.

It is this central theme of what it means to communicate that resonates now. I don’t pretend to make comparison between the Quangels (based on the real life couple the Hampels) and tweeting your anger at the latest Trump nonsense, but rather to highlight the universality of their need to say something, to counter oppressive narratives. That’s why people still try to conduct rational debate online, to present facts, to write blogs and tweets that highlight hypocrisy in the alternative facts and noise deliberately created by those who seek to undermine our sense of reality and justice. Like in Fallada’s novel this nearly always seems futile, occasionally dangerous and largely irrelevant in the bigger scheme. But it’s the act of continuing to communicate, even in to a void, that keeps us human. As Fallada puts it, “we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone.”

Happy new year.

2017 blog review

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sun, 31/12/2017 - 10:54

This is not an edtech review of the year (why do that, when Audrey does it better than anyone?), but rather a review of my own blogging over the year.

First up, some stats:

  • Number of posts: 50 (including this one)
  • Comments: 202 (including ones from me)
  • Visitors: 231,081
  • Visits: 2,123,507 (mainly bots plus me)

I try to blog on average about once a week, so maintained that pretty well. I don’t have a strict policy on this (eg, blogging every Thursday afternoon or something), but the rough goal does prompt me to blog on occasion when I feel there’s been a gap. And in the way of the unpredictability of such things, it is often these ‘filler’ posts which end up being the most popular. So a loose goal seems to work for me in this regard.

I don’t know how to interpret the stats, I know from my other aborted blogs on films and ice hockey, which get about 20 views a year, that this is a lot of traffic. I suspect though that it’s largely bots (certainly in the visits count) generated by having a certain amount of google juice. Even bot love is a form of love.

In terms of themes that emerged this year in my own writing (which is not necessarily representative of anything broader), I would suggest the following four.

Trying to make sense of it all – after the dumpster fire of 2016, this year lurched further into farce and insanity, so there were a few posts on what does it all mean? And in particular what does it mean for education? I toyed with the unenlightenment theme for a bit, but I don’t feel I ever really got that to a meaningful conclusion. Perhaps it didn’t have the legs in the end. The intersection and role of technology in the dystopia we’re creating was also a concern. This theme demonstrates the use of a blog to work things through for yourself as much as sharing ideas – blogging is frequently the means by which I approach a new topic or issue, as its format helps me develop my own thoughts on something. So, I’m always tremendously grateful for those who help me work this through, and especially for the generosity in interpretation of half formed ideas.

The role of open universities and openness – this theme looked at questions such as: what is the future of single mode open universities? What topics does the term open education cover? What are the ways in which openness is being deployed by universities? This is a recurring theme on this blog, as its pretty much my Venn diagram intersection as an academic of research interests (OER, OEP, etc) and institution (OU veteran). This year I felt however that it was a topic that came up a lot more at conferences. Maybe it’s the after effect of MOOCs.

Study & personal metaphors – I completed my Art History MA this year with the OU, and I like to try and make connections between my study and ed tech, even if its very tenuous. Reflecting on being a student is always useful, and  metaphors allow you to be playful in a way that formal academic writing doesn’t. More people came up to me to chat about the Barnaby post or the privilege post than ever do about my academic papers.

Professional amplification – when you have a reasonably popular blog or twitter account you sometimes get asked to broadcast stuff: events, job adverts, projects, etc. I try not to do too much of this, but this year I have used the blog to try and promote some of my own research or others. The key to this not just being a broadcast which I think would be boring for everyone is to find ways in which they speak to broader trends. Having a ‘voice’ (whatever that means) is a bit of a privilege so using it to boost projects or organisations I’m associated with is something I can offer.

Those four categories don’t cover all the posts, but ‘miscellaneous ramblings concocted while walking the dog’ doesn’t convey the right sense of analysis does it? I would say I hope 2018 is better than 2017, but I don’t see much hope for that. Mike Caulfield’s predictions seem pretty on the nose for me, and that doesn’t look like a fun place. But I’ll keep blogging my way through it, as it’s the only thing I have (well, that and a penchant for naps, but that won’t help anyone).

Oh, and thanks Reclaim Hosting for another great year of service.

The zone of proximal depravity

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 21/12/2017 - 11:59

In the digital era it’s always a difficulty to discern the difference between behaviours that have always been present, but we just notice them differently, and those that are fundamentally changed by the digital environment. Often it’s a bit of both. One such aspect I’ve been thinking about recently is our exposure as individuals to extreme views. It’s one where I think the digital world has caused a significant shift for all of us.

In the analogue world, it’s been usually pretty easy not to find yourself exposed to extreme views, or targeted by extremists, or caught in the middle of a conversation with fascists, terrorists, conspiracy theorists, and assorted undesirables. This was because you can usually spot them, and also because conversations go through stages, it rarely goes, “hello, pleased to meet you, let me tell you about white supremacy”. I remember once I was travelling to Germany in the 80s via coach. I was on the ferry with a group of construction workers (it was Auf Wiedersehen, Pet time), and I got drinking and chatting with them. One of them was clearly intelligent and amiable and we chatted over a couple of Stellas. And then from a conversation about football, he was telling me about the global Jewish conspiracy, the research he had done, how they controlled everything, etc. Like many conspiracy devotees, he was intelligent and erudite, but completely monomaniacal and twisted. The reason I remember this encounter is because it was a failure of my radar. You get blokes (and it’s usually a bloke) like this in the pub, but you quickly detect it, either in their aggressive tone or the direction of the conversation and move away. But in this case I had been caught out and found myself in the middle of this guy’s derangement before I knew where I was.

I raise this memory because it is now what we all face on a daily basis. Mike Caulfield gives an intriguing and terrifying account of how quickly the algorithm on Pinterest takes you from recipes to full on conspiracy theory and fake news:

It is this way in which algorithms now actively seek to bypass our previous defences against extremism that is new. For example, Facebook’s “pages you may like” algorithm suggest Britain First to me (I mean, wtf?). Or the time my daughter came downstairs visibly shaken because a misogynistic video from Milo had popped up in her timeline and not knowing who he was, she had watched it. Or when a friend of a friend on FB decided to dump an offensive meme in the middle of a conversation. You’ll ALL have similar examples, and they happen every day.

To borrow slightly tongue in cheek from Vygostky, we can think of this as a collapse in our zone of proximal depravity. Before you get to the real zealots and extremists, you had to go through a layer of protection and increasing signals. You rarely got embedded in it by accident:

But what the algorithmic feed does is effectively collapse this protective layer, so our previous signals, defensive mechanisms and means of establishing distance are no longer effective. So now it’s just a thin membrane:

There are implications for this. For the individual I worry about our collective mental health, to be angry, to be made to engage with this stuff, to be scared and to feel that it is more prevalent than maybe it really is. For society it normalises these views, desensitises us to them and also raises the emotional temperature of any discussion. One way of viewing digital literacy is reestablishing the protective layer, learning the signals and techniques that we have in the analogue world for the digital one. And perhaps the first step in that is in recognising how that layer has been diminished by algorithms.

The Digital Scholar revisited

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 20/12/2017 - 10:08

I’m writing a paper at the moment which is revisiting my 2011 book The Digital Scholar, and asking ‘what has changed since then?’. Back in 2011, although elearning had entered the mainstream with widespread adoption of VLEs, much of the focus was on the potential of digital scholarship. A number of studies at the time indicated that adoption of new technology by academics was cautious and often greeted with suspicion. Proctor, Williams and Stewart (2010) summed up the prevailing attitude, finding ‘frequent or intensive use is rare, and some researchers regard blogs, wikis and other novel forms of communication as a waste of time or even dangerous’. Since then a lot has changed, so it was interesting to revisit. In thinking about what has changed since, I’ve ended up with five themes:

Mainstreaming of digital scholarship
The use of digital, networked technology in all aspects of scholarship has become part of the mainstream of practice. Not only is it no longer unusual to meet an academic with a blog or a Twitter account, but online identity is now seen as a central part of what it means to be an academic. Research projects will make use of twitter accounts to both disseminate findings and recruit subjects, online digital databases now form part of a researcher’s toolkit and tools for analyzing social media, VLE and geo data have generated new insights and approaches. In teaching, the advent of MOOCs may have been accompanied by hype but it also raised the profile of online education in general. Digital scholarship is now just part of scholarship in many respects.

The shift to open
Closely allied to digital scholarship is the development of open practice, which can be seen as a third component in the requirements for digital scholarship, building on digital and networked aspects.
In education ‘open’ has become a modifier for many terms, giving rise to open textbooks, open data, open pedagogy, open science and open educational practice. The increase in profile of open practice then underpins many of the subsequent themes, to the extent that open scholarship may in fact be a more descriptive term than digital scholarship.

Policy development
A further aspect of this mainstreaming is the development of institutional, regional or national policies with respect to different aspects of digital scholarship. Most prominent of these are the development of open access mandates which state that the outcomes of research funded by a particular body need to be released openly. ROARMAP tracks such policies at the funder, research organisation and multiple organisation level. It indicates that in 2011 (when the Digital Scholar was published) there were 387 such policies in total, compared with 887 at the end of 2017, in 68 different countries.
Related to open access publication mandates are policies relating to open data, which state that, as with publications, data arising from publicly funded research projects should be openly available. This area is less well developed than open access publications, but growing rapidly, in part because such policies can build on the work established by open access mandates. For example, SPARC Europe found that 13 European nations had open data policies at a national level, with most having been implemented recently. About half of these used the existing open access policy to expand coverage to open data.

Network identity
Perhaps the area of digital scholarship that has seen the most growth, both in terms of practice and associated research, is that of networked, academic identity. Veletsianos & Kimmons refer to Networked participatory scholarship (NPS) to encompass scholars’ use of social networks to “pursue, share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship”. This has been an area of growth as social media use in general has grown in society.
However, researchers are also increasingly identifying the negative aspects of networked scholarship also. Stewart comments that ‘network platforms are increasingly recognised as sites of rampant misogyny, racism, and harassment’. The initial promise of digital scholarship has often turned dark.

Criticality of digital scholarship
Following on from the recognition of the drawbacks of developing an online identity, is the last of the major trends, which is a growing body of work that examines digital scholarship through a critical lens.
This comes in different forms, but one prominent strand is suspicion about the claims of educational technology in general, and the role of software companies in particular. One of the consequences of digital scholarship and open practices entering the mainstream of education is that they become increasingly attractive routes for companies to enter the education market. Much of the narrative around digital scholarship is associated with change, which quickly becomes co-opted into broader agendas around commercialisation, commodification and massification of education.

While there has been considerable change, it is worth indicating that much has remained unchanged also. The ‘approach with caution’ attitude towards digital scholarship that was prevalent in 2011 still prevails to an extent.
What has been realised then is not so much a revolution in academic practice, but a gradual acceptance and utilisation of digital scholarship techniques, practices and values. This means that depending on your particular perspective, it can seem to be simultaneously true that radical change has taken place, and nothing has fundamentally altered. Much of the increased adoption in academia mirrors the wider penetration of social media tools amongst society in general, so academics are more likely to have an identity in such places that mixes professional and personal.
The relationship between digital and traditional scholarship is best viewed as one of dialogue and interaction between the two, rather than competition and revolution. Using these five themes provides a model for considering how this symbiotic progress will develop. Mainstreaming, the shift to open and policy development will act as drivers for the uptake of digital scholarship across all aspects of Boyer’s framework. Network identity can be seen as the lived experience of these drivers for many scholars, which can act as both an inhibitor and promoter of further uptake. Criticality provides a much needed check on unquestioning adoption, and analysis of the impact on learners and scholarly practice.

Of course, if things had really changed, I wouldn’t be writing an article at all, and instead would just submit a naff meme:


Annual film review

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 11/12/2017 - 13:58

I didn’t get to see as many films this year as I’d hoped, but it turned out to be a pretty good year. After a few years where the blockbusters have been uniformly awful, this year’s batch contained some movies that finally understood their role as entertainment (Thor, Wonder Woman) and even had people discussing narrative structures (Dunkirk). Either side of these were films that, like my book choices, couldn’t be divorced from the current climate.

Many of the films that follow were officially released in 2016, but I’m going on when they got a cinema release in the UK. So, here’s my top ten, because who doesn’t love a list:

  • The Handmaiden – Chan-wook Park takes Sarah Waters’ sublime LGBT-erotica-meets-Oliver-Twist novel, Fingersmith (also in my top reads of the year), and relocates it from London to 1930s Korea. He ramps up the sensuality and drama (from a pretty high starting point) to create a sumptuous, beautiful, twisting film that’s like eating all your food from a Belgian chocolate fountain. It’s also a lesson in how to do book adaptation, retaining the central core narrative elements, and more importantly the tone of the book, while creating something wholly its own.
  • Get Out – like They Live or The People Under The Stairs, (or even The Night of the Living Dead), good horror can be an effective social commentator and in Jordan Peele’s claustrophobic tale of white control and liberal appropriation of black values, this movie was so 2017. Sometimes horror that wants to be an allegory forgets to serve its primary focus of being a horror, but Peele’s film spins both plates effortlessly – it’s both straight up terrifying and also a scathing social metaphor.
  • Baby Driver – whereas La La Land was meant to instil you with a joie de vivre, it all seemed too forced, as if accountants had researched the jazz scene. But the joy in Baby Driver is not in life so much but in cinema itself. Every scene seems to be declaring “isn’t this shit great??”
  • Dunkirk – I didn’t rate Nolan’s World War 2 epic as highly as some (I mean how many times can the same guy nearly drown?), but it had plenty to recommend it, in Hans Zimmer’s score, the cycling narrative timeline and the realistic portrayal of air battles. It was a film that made people appreciate the cinematic experience and that’s always worth acknowledging.
  • Raw – I loved Julia Ducournau’s French extremism take on social conformity, family secrets, coming of age, and yes, quite a bit of cannibalism. While the furore focused on people passing out in the cinema (have they never seen any French extremity cinema?) this overlooked what a beautifully shot film it is, with bold use of colour and modernist, painterly structured scenes. Ducournau is a talent to be reckoned with.
  • Lady Macbeth – this bleak tale of Katherine forced into an oppressive marriage in 19th Century rural England is a slow, grinding build to an amoral climax, that makes the viewer complicit in the final act.
  • Wonder Woman – Patty Jenkins’ interpretation of the comic book format was nigh on perfect. Gadot stormed to prominence as easily the best superhero around, the pacing was like an exact 4/4 rhythm, and the tone provided a welcome return to enjoyment away from the Nietzschean angst of the dire comic book adaptations that have gone before.
  • My Life as a Courgette – while the studio Ghibli metaphysical magic realism tale The Red Turtle gained all the plaudits, if I’m to include an animation, I’d opt for this Swiss/French stop-motion tale of redemption in an orphanage. It starts with the eponymous Courgette accidentally killing his abusive, alcoholic mother. I mean, that sounds like a fun movie, right? But it’s incredibly sweet, with a definite, unique visual style.
  • Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci’s hilarious take on the final days of Stalin finds its way to truth by coming at it indirectly. The actors speak in their native accents, but there’s a strange veracity in, for example, Jason Isaacs gruff northerner portrayal of Georgy Zhukov, that an accurate depiction would not capture. It’s a hoot.
  • For the last selection, choose your preferred one from The Battle of the Sexes, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, Thor Ragnarok, I am not Madame Bovary or Toni Erdmann. Yes, that’s a cop out, but while I liked all of these, none of them particularly clamours to merit the last spot.

As a horror fan the revisiting of It was enjoyable, prosaic post apocalytptic movies had a bit of a run with It comes at night and The Survivalist, and there were some inventive low budget productions such as I am the pretty thing that lives in the house, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, A Dark Song and Devils Candy..

Overall it was a good, but not great year. Perhaps the most noteworthy trend is the growth of decent female representation both as central characters and directors. Nowhere was this more evident than with a comparison of the two films to feature Wonder Woman. Whereas Jenkins’ film was a delight, Snyder’s was ponderous and mediocre. Of the films mentioned above I think Wonder Woman, Raw and Get Out are the ones that will have staying power.

Books, charts, blah

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 08/12/2017 - 09:43

Because Christmas is the season to be selfish (that’s right isn’t it?) I continue my annual self indulgence in December of blogging some personal reviews of the year. First up the third of my books review with pointless charts.

It’s been a really good year for my own reading with 51 books (I expect I’ll fit one more in before year end to make it one a week), so in this top ten I’ve excluded classic books I read or re-read this year, but that doesn’t mean these are all new releases this year.

It wasn’t intentional, but looking at that list it is heavily influenced by the social and political context of 2017. Three of the books are concerned with the Nazis, their rise to power and the consequences of normalising bigotry. It is also impossible to read these accounts without making parallels to the current situation, both here in the UK and particularly in the US. Reni Eddo-Lodge and Colson Whitehead both provided blistering attacks on structural racism in different forms and similarly Cordelia Fine and Naomi Alderman tackle sexism from non-fiction and fictional perspectives (they’re also wildly entertaining writers).

On to the first chart, breakdown by genre. As usual, contemporary literature was the largest category, but a lot more non-fiction this year (and I’ve randomly selected out music/film as a separate category). Because of my new found love of audiobooks (see the format chart below), I also read or reread a lot of classics.

Which brings me on to format. I signed up for Audible at the start of the year, and I am mildly addicted to audiobooks now. I ran three marathons this year, and doing a long, slow run on a Sunday morning listening to a good reading of Dickens or Zadie Smith is a marvellous way to pass a couple of hours. I also drive to Milton Keynes regularly, and suddenly being stuck on the M4 doesn’t seem as painful when you’re listening to Stephen Fry read the Complete Sherlock Holmes. I also started buying physical books more this year, and kindle saw a decline from previous years. It is a year I got back into vinyl coincidentally. Maybe there’s something about the precariousness of the times we live in that makes you crave comfort in physical objects, as if I can build my nuclear shelter from Sarah Waters novels and Echo and the Bunnymen albums.

Lastly, breakdown by author gender. Almost an even split, with 26 men to 25 women. I actively try to maintain an even balance, and sometimes a particular route means you have read more than one, for instance I read a few film industry books at the start of the year, which ended up being a very male area. However, in terms of impact, my top ten is largely dominated by women writers (and unlike the book editor of the NYT I managed to find great women writers all on my own, by you know, reading them).

Here’s the full list if you’re interested:

1. Wishful Drinking _ Carrie Fisher
2. Postcards from the Edge – Carrie Fisher
3. Ways of Seeing – John Berger
4. Agatha Christie on the Screen – Mark Aldridge
5. Cant Stop Wont Stop – Jeff Chang
6. Pietr the Latvian – Georges Simenon
7. Hip Hop Generation – Bakari Kitwana
8. Jaws – Peter Benchley
9. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – Peter Biskind
10. You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again – Julia Phillips
11. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
12. Homo Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
13. On Beauty – Zadie Smith
14. Bowie – Paul Morley
15. Complete Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
16. Playing to the Gallery – Grayson Perry
17. The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien – Georges Simenon
18. Set the Boy Free – Johnny Marr
19. Swing Time – Zadie Smith
20. The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane
21. The Death of Expertise – Tom Nichols
22. The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury
23. White teeth – Zadie Smith
24. Secret Life of bees – Sue Monk Kidd
25. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails – Sarah Bakewell
26. Istanbul – Bettany Hughes
27. The Siege – Helen Dunmore
28. Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
29. Fugitive pieces – Anne Michaels
30. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
31. Good Behaviour – Molly Keane
32. The Holocaust – Laurence Rees
33. SPQR – Mary Beard
34. Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
35. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
36. Birdcage walk – Helen Dunmore
37. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maude Montgomery
38. The Dogs Last Walk – Howard Jacobson
39. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
40. Night Watch – Sarah Waters
41. North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
42. Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan
43. Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine
44. The Power – Naomi Alderman
45. The Man Who Knew Too Much – G K Chesterton
46. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
47. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
48. Napoleon the Great – Andrew Roberts
49. Autumn – Ali Smith
50. Period Piece – Gwen Raverat
51. Silas Marner – George Eliot

Innovating Pedagogy 2017

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 07/12/2017 - 09:47

The Open University’s annual Innovating Pedagogy report is out, this time in collaboration with the Learning In a NetworKed Society (LINKS) Israeli Center of Research Excellence (I-CORE). It’s the sixth year we’ve done one (well done to Rebecca Ferguson and Mike Sharples on pushing this through). When we started the intention was to make it distinct from the NMC New Horizon reports by focusing on pedagogy. I think, to be honest, in those early ones there was probably a technology focus still, but as it’s progressed it has really moved away from this to more pedagogy, socially focused issues.

I’d also add I’ve found it increasingly useful as a resource. I’m occasionally asked to contribute something on current developments in ed tech, and I use the IP reports as a good starting point. Basically, they allow you to sound very knowledgeable, and impress people.

The ten trends covered this year are as follows (you can guess which one I contributed). The Times Higher take is here.

Spaced learning
Based on research into brain activity and human learning, this involves teaching in short blocks with breaks between them. This fast-paced approach has been tested, showing that 90 minutes of spaced learning could have the same outcomes as months of study.
Learners making science
Experiencing how science is made can enhance skills and develop critical thinking. Taking part in crowdsourced activities and participating in citizen science projects have the potential to change how young people think and act in relation to their surroundings.
Open textbooks
Initially established to reduce costs (HE books can account for a quarter of a student’s expenses), Open Textbooks are a form of Open Educational Resource, providing adaptable content which students can add to and edit.
Navigating post-truth societies
New information sources diversify the information available but have created new challenges as people make daily decisions about where to get information and who to trust. Taking account of this in the curriculum helps people evaluate information, reflect on their own assumptions and seek a diversity of knowledge to cut through ‘fake news’.
Intergroup empathy
Projects such as ‘Humans of New York’ show the value of constructive contact between people from various cultural backgrounds. New approaches use technology and gaming to develop empathy with people from different groups.
Immersive learning
Fast-developing technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality offer learners opportunities to immerse themselves in situations that would be difficult, dangerous or impossible in everyday life. Learning in this way can be engaging, stimulating and memorable for learners.
Student-led analytics
Moving away from teachers and institutions using analytics to help students, this trend focuses on analytics helping learners to specify their own goals and ambitions. Particularly useful for those with limited study time, this approach puts learners in control and allows them to, for example, shift their goals and priorities or request feedback.
Big-data inquiry
In today’s data-driven world, students need to learn to work and think with data from an early age so they are well prepared with the skills society needs. To do this, they need opportunities that encourage them to be active in exploring data, managing and analysing it.
Learning with internal values
People are motivated to learn when they have important questions to answer or problems to address. When learning is linked to goals that learners value, they take ownership of their work and put in the effort needed.
Humanistic knowledge-building communities
This unites two approaches to learning, encouraging students to be creative and open to experience as well as willing to work together to develop new ideas and knowledge.

Oh, so that’s what that meant

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 28/11/2017 - 14:41

Because the internet, and particularly the web and social media, are so pervasive now we have a tendency to overlook how recent it all is, and how rapid the change and associated social adjustments have been. If the founding of the pre-web can be seen as the gestation of the internet’s role in society, then since the 90s we’ve been going through its childhood. This was a time filled with optimism, charm, naïveté, and rapid development. We’re now in the teenage years – it can be dark, moody, but also positive, engaging and realistic. It is a stage where it seeks meaning and its role in the world (and by it, I mean us and the tech).

One way to demonstrate this is to think back on some of those early beliefs and sayings about the internet. These often turn out to be true in ways we didn’t appreciate then.

For example, it was commonly said “we’re all broadcasters now”. By which people meant, of course, that publishing content was no longer the privilege of those who worked in the media or owned a newspaper. Which is true, but thinking on this in 2017, what we didn’t appreciate was that it should have meant ‘we have the responsibility of broadcasters now’. In a world where Fake News, and the labelling of Real News and Fake News is disorientating to any notion of truth, how everyone contributes to this becomes significant. Like broadcasters were supposed to, we have a responsibility to check the veracity of stories that we share, to not put people in danger, to be reflective and sober. Sadly, many broadcasters abandoned these principles also. But the point remains, the liberation that we initially perceived masked the responsibility that came with it.

James Boyle proposed an “Internet Holy Trinity“, which are like the three laws of the internet back in 1997. Each of these has a similar reinterpretation in the current context I feel.

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This was, and remains, a powerful metaphor. But its flip side is ‘trolls will find a way’. Mike Caulfield has a section in his excellent newsletter entitled “Gamergate: The Dry Run for the Apocalypse” in which he details how coordinated misogynistic attacks were how much of the concerted mal-information and systematic trolling techniques were developed. Effectively they learnt how to route around censorship in order to put nazis in power. It doesn’t seem such a cool slogan now, does it?

“In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance.” Similarly, Boyle states that “the postulate that a global Net cannot be regulated by national governments has been seen as an unequivocally positive thing.” However, he points out, this can have negative as free speech is only a local ordnance. This failure to create a constitution of the internet, the romantic wild west notion, has meant that we have both state regulation in many places, increasing data surveillance and a lack of a real regulatory (compared with a technical) framework to defend it.

“Information Wants to be Free.” Yes, it does. But maybe Misinformation wants to be free more. And that poses real problems for a society.

To return to my initial point, from a long view perspective it’s not surprising we’re now going through these struggles with our relationship with the internet. It’s all so new and we really haven’t had anything like this before. Which makes it more important that we seek to address the issues now, and reflect on where the internet is heading rather than see it as neutral or something beyond our control.

Maybe more isn’t better

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 15/11/2017 - 17:43

In education (and ed tech especially) we have a number of assumptions that seem obvious and they drive a lot of our thinking, particularly around change and implementation of technology. They usually get positive responses when you ask people about them, and often they are valid, but I’ve had a few examples recently that highlight the value in questioning some of those unspoken beliefs.

The first assumption is “Personalised learning is better” – I mean, that seems obvious right? It’s better to have something tailored to your needs rather than one size fits all? That’s probably true, but this report found that students in personalized schools feel less positive about their experience. I don’t know enough about how the programmes are implemented to say whether this is a problem with personalisation per se or just poor implementation. But we should pause anyway – personalisation erodes the sense of a cohort and shared experience with others, which is a significant part of the educational process. It may also place stress on the student to feel like they need to direct their own learning as well as undertake it, maybe doing just one of those is enough.

The second assumption is that “People want more flexibility”. Again, this seems obvious, and indeed may well be correct in many instances. But at the EADTU conference I was struck by a presentation from Rieny van den Munckhof, from the OU Netherlands. They found that, echoing some of the sentiment around personalisation above, that their previously highly flexible model (start any time, take exam when you want), was in fact, too flexible. It worked for highly independent learners, but they’ve switched to a more structured approach. This has improved retention and allowed for more interactive pedagogy.

My last one is that “more feedback is always better”. I don’t really have any evidence on this, but here’s an anecdote instead. I recently had real time energy meters installed, which came with a handy display to show my current gas and electricity usage. This became a source of some anxiety for me, and in the end I unplugged it and hid it in a drawer. In some sense it did it’s job, making me more conscious of energy usage. For the planet, that’s good, but putting that aside as it less relevant for our student analogy, I’m not sure it was worth the cost. I may save a few pounds on each bill, but not drastically, and the stress of seeing that monitor continually telling me not to cook a Sunday dinner removed enjoyment from it. Might the same be true for students with learning analytics? Receiving continual feedback on page dwells, scores, contributions, creates a stress to monitor the monitoring rather than engage in the activity. The research on immediate and delayed feedback is mixed, so maybe for some students a general “you’re doing ok” is sufficient.

In all three of these cases(personalisation, flexibility, feedback), I’m sure you can find examples where they have improved satisfaction, performance, retention, etc. But we shouldn’t let these unspoken assumptions pass unchallenged, because huge industries and major university strategies which will affect thousands of learners are based on them.

Mapping the open education landscape

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 09/11/2017 - 10:06

This post follows on from the previous one, which focused on the Open Education Beginners Guide. In this I want to look at the citation network in more detail. To restate, this work arose from some initial research Viv Rolfe did, exploring the references for open education. Using a bibliographic search for “open education” and related terms, she identified a set of publications in the 1970s and 80s, which referenced earlier foundational work. This work was largely a product of the growth of open universities and distance learning. However, what is more latterly often meant by open education (particularly in the US) rarely relates to this earlier work.

Katy Jordan then did some excellent citation network analysis, whereby each paper links out to its references, creating a spreading activation network. We started by using an initial sample of 20 articles based on the following search: ((“open education”, “open learning”, openness)AND(history,definition)). She then:

  • extracted references from each article into a spreadsheet listing ‘source’ and ‘target’ items, removing duplicates
  • imported the CSV files into Gephi for network analysis
  • conducted a further iteration of references that were cited by at least two of the original articles.

We then identified any gaps in the literature based on our collective expertise, and suggested further key references which might provide useful ‘seeds’. This gave a final network of 5,217 references from 172 articles. This gave the overall network shown below. You can explore a very fun and useful interactive version of this at Katy’s site which allows you to select each node (which corresponds to an article) and get citation and network info.

This network provides a means of visualising the broader open education landscape. What does it tell us then? Firstly, it reinforces the sense that Viv had from her work, and our grumpy old people’s conversation later, that the main references for ‘traditional’ distance/open education (the bottom right) are rarely referenced by ‘later’ open ed movements of OER, MOOCs, etc. But it also highlights that there is not much overlap between any of the areas, that is they rarely share references, and as a result any common understanding. Open education in schools seems worryingly out on its own also, with little connection into the broader OER or Open Practice community. Some clustering is understandable, for instance the area of open access publishing has developed on its own path, and often relates to very specific issues of library practice. Similarly social media (academic use of Twitter for example), is probably a bridging topic into other areas, such as digital scholarship, network society, etc. You could imagine this network expanding from here into other areas.

My two take-aways though would be:

  1. There needs to be greater overlap and shared understanding between these groups
  2. Open practice seems to be an emerging area, and this may provide some of this ‘connective’ tissue between the various domains.

It’s worth stressing some of the limitations of this study (the starting sample could be bigger, the starting references will influence the resulting network, further iterations could be implemented) – it should be seen as a starting point, rather than the definitive mapping. But nevertheless it provides a useful means of both approaching a topic, and thinking about the broader open education community.

My part in the battle for Open (universities)

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 25/10/2017 - 17:03

Last week I was at the ICDE conference in Toronto. Here I attended a meeting of the OERu, and gave papers on our OOFAT work, and reclaiming open history, as well as running a workshop for the GO-GN/Global Doctorate network. There was a common theme (beyond my bumbling) running through all of these, which was the nature of open, distance education.

Prior to Irwin and I talking about the work on reclaiming open history (I’ll blog this later), Ross Paul talked about the history of Open Universities and their future. He stressed the influence that the UK OU, and open universities in general had in higher education in general, in changing the narrative around who higher education was for, and how it could be delivered. But single mode universities now face an uncertain future. Our own Vice Chancellor has been writing about the impact that fees have had on part-time students. The approach to fees arises from a mindset that still sees full time, 18-22 year olds on campus as the norm, with degree completion the sole aim. The retired 65 year old, studying one or two Spanish courses for interest (say), isn’t well served by a model designed with the former in mind.

This, plus competition from other universities (in this open universities have been a victim of their own success), has created a challenging environment for the OU. This has led to much soul searching and significant reorganisation, which may be required but also creates an uncertain context for those working there. Many of my colleagues have left, or are looking for jobs. I confess, while I haven’t been actively looking for jobs, I’ve not NOT been looking either. But the combined effect of these discussions provided me with a mini-epiphany: The OU is my kind of institution, and I should stay and fight for its future (and open universities in general). You’ve got to believe in something, right?

The reason I believe in the value of a single institution provider (rather than distance ed being covered by a range of HEIs) comes largely down to scale: a large scale, national provider gives many benefits you simply don’t get when part time is devolved to lots of smaller departments in other universities. Those providers will hardly ever prioritise part-time, distance ed over their main cohorts, it is always a nice extra. A single, large scale institution provides some counter-balance to the dominant narrative and perception of higher ed students mentioned above. Scale also makes some things possible that are unviable when diluted, or at least operate better at scale: some niche courses can only operate at a national scale; expertise in distance and online ed can be focused (and, no, MOOC providers haven’t replaced this, they just have a range of more or less unicorn business models); student community and body; national employment initiatives (eg apprenticeships) support services; a national presence in international forums.

So whatcha gonna do about it Martin? I pondered this a lot (while running very slowly around the Toronto marathon, running a long distance is good for thinking, bad for hips). I’m going to borrow from Catherine Cronin’s work on sharing practice for individuals and repurpose it. Catherine suggests four levels: macro (global level), meso (community/network level), micro (individual level), and nano (interaction level). Putting these levels to work in how what I do can be shaped to a broader goal of helping the OU, I get:

Macro: Reclaim and refresh the broad Open narrative – I write a lot about open education in general, and how the OU sits in relation to this. As I’ve often bemoaned, there is sometimes a sense that open ed was created in the US with the invention of OER (or MOOCs). The work I’m doing with Irwin, Katy and Viv Rolfe on reclaiming the open history explicitly attempts to locate the different elements of open ed in a broader context. We are creating a starter pack on literature and through projects such as GO-GN I intend to not just raise awareness of open universities in this context but attempt to bring together the sometimes disparate research/practitioner fields. If I can be immodest, I think I’m well placed to do this sitting in the intersection of a lot of these communities, and there’s benefit on all sides to doing so. It might also help new OU staff also to understand where their institution sits.

Meso: Continue redefining what constitutes an Open University – the OU defined a model of what ‘open education’ meant. Over the years this has been tweaked and new elements have been added and emphasised. Open source software, OER, MOOCs – the OU has managed to stay abreast of these and adapt what it means to be an Open University accordingly. The next challenge to incorporate is open educational practice – how do we operate more openly, in terms of teaching, research, administration. I have a sense that whatever the OU tries to become, it won’t go far wrong if it has open values at the core. Without those it’s just a big provider and loses any sense of distinctiveness.

Micro: Advocate for OER use internally to the OU – the OU has been very good at creating OER (through OpenLearn), but less inclined to use it. I feel there is an opportunity through projects such as Open Textbooks UK to raise the profile of OER use within the OU. This has some practical benefits – reduced production of bespoke material, courses that can be adapted more readily, but also helps better locate the OU in some of this field which aids its profile.

Nano: Helping module design – using the hypothesis and evidence approach we developed on the OER Research Hub we are looking at examining hypotheses around OU course production and providing an evidence base that will help increase elements such as student retention.

That’s all I’ve got for now, and some need fleshing out more. I reach 23 years OU service next year, and the past week has made me realise afresh how much I value it as an institution. Maybe in the future they won’t want old timers hanging around saying things like “I remember when we used to do two weeks summer school every year” but for as long as it’s possible, I’ll  do my best to ensure the OU continues to provide a model for open education, and feel reinvigorated to do so. Of course, there’s a strong possibility that like a toddler ‘helping’ their parent with a task, the OU doesn’t want, or need my help, but there you have it.



Cellini’s blood of digital scholarship

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 12/10/2017 - 21:24

I was invited to Florence last week to give a keynote on Digital Scholarship. After the talk I had a walk around that beautiful city, and saw Cellini’s Perseus in the Plazza della Signoria. Looking at the statue with digital scholarship thoughts in my head, I regretted not having made it the springboard metaphor for my talk. It is, also I’ll admit, an attempt to irritate Jim Groom further with ridiculous metaphors. Like any great work of art Cellini’s Perseus can bear many different interpretations, many of them contradictory, and also suggest meanings that were never intended. So here is the talk I should have given: “Cellini’s Perseus – the Lessons of Digital Scholarship”.

The first of these is about representations of power, and more explicitly misogyny. If you’ve ever seen Cellini’s statue of Perseus you’ll know that it’s a visceral, dynamic, challenging piece of work. But it’s also a blatant representation of misogyny. Even at the time, Christine Coretti argues that the statue was intended to legitimize patriarchal power, and was in response to the growing power of Medici women. But further, the Medusa has long been a symbol of male oppression of female power. As Elizabeth Johnston argues the Medusa is a recurring theme, and can be seen as the original ‘nasty woman’.  Cellini’s statue was a major technological achievement, according to Cellini’s own account it was a Frankenstein act of insane, life-giving creation. This new use of casting allowed for a more realistic, vital medium, challenging the lifeless form of marble. This offered new possibilities, new means of interpreting and representing the world. But, as with online platforms we find that this new technology and representational form reinforced existing power structures, and indeed sought to legitimise them. When Rose McGowan is banned from Twitter while Richard Spencer continues happily it is easy to conclude that as with Perseus, so with Social Media.

The second interpretation is to view Medusa more straightforwardly as a monster, but one of our own making. When we look into its gaze, we are made inhuman. This is an obvious metaphor for the dark side of the internet. We created this platform and for all of its potential and positive elements, we have also unleashed the monster of trolling, fake news, alt-right, gamergate, etc. But Perseus can be seen as hope in this sense, we must slay the demons we have created by reflecting its own gaze back at it. The role of education is to act as Perseus shield in this respect, to develop literacies, tools and communities that use the communicative power of the internet as the means to take power away from the trolls.

The third lesson for digital scholarship relates to the famous blood of Cellini’s Perseus. Michael Cole has a whole article devoted to the discussion of the portrayal of blood, which was deemed shocking at the time, the John Carpenter gore merchant of its day. What the simultaneously realistic and otiose representation of blood flowing from the head and neck do is posit the viewer at the moment of death, the transition from the living state. The blood “reveals what life drains from the face and the limbs” as Cole puts it. In this Cellini’s Perseus reminds us what death really means. This continual connection to reality, to what our actions mean, how algorithms manifest themselves in people’s everyday lives is lacking from much of the ed tech industry. They all need a constant reminder like Cellini’s blood running through software coding sprints and venture capitalist huddles. It is the social impact of ed tech that we need to be grounded in.

Those are my (yes, tortuous) lessons for digital scholarship that can be found if you spend too long hanging around Florence with a head full of keynote and discussions. I’m sure given enough time I could extract some more. It’s a reminder to me to try and connect my talk with location anyway – or maybe not.

An Agile Hypothesis Sprint: what do we know about learner performance?

The structure for the research for OER Reserach Hub is built around 11 hypotheses that we are testing through our work with collaborating organisations, fellowships and background studies. We are now at a stage where the collaborations are well underway and surveys are producing data and we want to bring together the views from the team around the hypotheses and reflecting on our research.

On an away day at the beginning of June we took some lessons from Agile Programming to become Agile Researchers and carried out an Hypothesis Sprint, involving Sprint Boards, T-shirt sized tasks, burndown velocity and mini-scrums!

Guided by Martin we picked one of our hypotheses and focused in on achievable tasks, reporting quick progress and then getting a reasonable result all in one morning. The method appears to work well and if it does give us more of what we need then expect we will expand…

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Starting out with MITx 6.002x

I have finally become a student again! What is more I am now enrolled with MIT(x) and it did not take a huge fee or any tough entry requirements. I am one of the 90,000 people who clicked the enroll button and signed in. For me there are several motivations:

  • I work on Open Educational Resources and feel I should experience what it is like to learn from them (I nearly did this with Sebastian Thrum’s AI course and regretted not going through when I spoke to an enthusiastic Seb Schmoller about his experience on the AI course).
  • I know some MIT folk and they come up with some interesting directions that it would be good to see in more detail. So this could feel like going in undercover and this way I needn’t feel bad about not doing the assignements but …
  • I nearly set out to do a course like this as an undergraduate. In the end I took Maths but always wondered if I should have taken electronic/physics. So I would like to do this for real.

So what has it been like? Well actually it has been quite hard! The level is fairly high and I have found in the first week that I have been integrating trig functions, differentiating using the product rule and writing rather a lot of symbols on pieces of paper! I have also found it quite rewarding – a bit like suduko on steroids. Puzzles that I really have to work at – and then carry on working on late at night. So far I have managed to come out the other side ok as luckily the “homeworks” all multiple attempts, I have a feeling that I have yet to get anything completely right on the first attempt.

The course itself has:

  • Videos to watch – these are sequenced and mixed with exercises. They are captioned but as Brandon Muramatsu points out in his post 6.002x Video: First Impressions they could have done this a bit better. Proper captioning would make quite a difference for me as I find I would rather read the words than listen and set things at 1.5x to help speed things up. (I think the team are listening though as it now remembers that I like video at 1.5x and I think at first I had to keep resetting that.
  • A huge textbook. This is a commercial book that you could buy but is available free. But in the free form it is quite annoying only page by page access and no downloading it all. I would really like this on my kindle and that is not possible, and I think actually the conditions would say that I cannot engineer it myself.
  • Discussions and a wiki with hints and feedbacks. The discussions are using a system that I think is called Askbot and so is based on Q&A rather than discussions as such. This might limit the chance for the community itself to form and is getting a bit unwieldy. There are also groups on other places such as facebook – but I have not explored those.
  • Exercises to work through. These typically ask questions and then you enter responses which are judged. Then you can look at the answers if you want or try again. The answers are often numeric.
  • Tutorials running through in videos worked examples. I have not watched many of these and it is quite hard to know what they will cover without watching them through.
  • Homework. These are similar to the exercises but you do not get the option to see the answer, These are fine – but they are quite challenging. Typically they extend well beyond the work covered in the videos and are difficult to match to the textbook as well.
  • Labs. These use a circuit simulator where you build up circuit diagrams and then calculate values or run a trace.

For me the homework has become the driver – quite revealing in itself though not a surprise to find assessment is taking over. The time I have spent was probably not far off the 10 hours in the first week but then a bit less as too much else has been going on in the second week.

I am enjoying doing the course though if the difficulty scales up I might fall by the wayside. I am not seeking to be critical in this post but I do agree with Brandon that a bit more effort to get the accessibility working better is needed. For the learning process I would normally expect stronger alignment between the materials and what is tested as well but actually having the homework as puzzles in themselves is quite interesting. I can then carry out a treasure hunt to see where the clues are hidden (in texts, videos, other exercises, discussions and out there in google search land).

I am not sure 6.002x should count as “Open Educational Resource” (OER), it is built on some materials already released on MIT’s OpenCourseWare site. But the addition of the textbook, the closed access to the course itself and that nothing in the design encourages transfer to another site make it more a free course than an open one.

At this point there is just time to sign up (first homework closes 18 March). So if you like mathematical puzzles, wonder if you should have done/should do electronics, and are interested in how open learning works this could be just the thing!

iBook Author – is it OER incompatible?

Important update (20 February 2012): Apple acted to change the End User License Agreement on 3 February 2012 with release 1.0.1 of iBook Author. This modified the restriction on commercial use to say “and includes files in the .ibooks format generated using iBooks Author” so it only applies to the iBook version of the text. As long as iBooks is the only platform to support that format this is no problem. So I hope it fixes most of the issues I mention. Though I must admit it still leaves me a little uncomfortable and probably still needs checking out a bit further.

Original post (20 January 2012): Following today’s Apple Education announcement I was intrigued by the CNET live blog having the comment that it was HyperCard reborn so I thought it might be worth a download. (Though still not an iPad owner.) The interface looks fine and my first thoughts were positive – this could be a way to finally knock Word off its undeserved position as the default way to pass documents around. But then just before I got going to have a play with actually doing something I noticed this:

The iBooks Author Export Dialogue

So this says that I can only sell by Book through the iBookstore. Fine I have no intention of selling anything… BUT I think this is the first time I have come across an application that says that I can only use the output – the thing I make – in a particular way. I then went investigating into the licence that I would be signing up for if I used the software.

Pressing on the License Agreement button gave me this:

Then reading down to the small print I find this explanation of what I can do:

So condition (ii) clearly says that if you are making any money from the iBook then it must be distributed through Apple. But what about condition (i)  – that sounds ok but I feel there could be a couple of catches.

Catch 1: the file format is .iba (not sure you can do much with that other than put it it iBooks I guess) but you can also get a PDF so maybe that is not so bad.

Catch 2: if I produce something I want to but a Creative Commons licence on it. In fact if I am producing something for a couple of projects that I work on I am contractually required to produce it using CC-BY. But then CC-BY allows anyone else to republish AND they may do so for commercial gain.

So either I have found a loophole – release with CC-BY then anyone else (which typically include you) can reuse your work in anyway they wish provided they attribute it to you. OR I have found a barrier – you cannot stick a CC-BY licence on anything made with iBook Author. The terms imply this is true even if you export it as PDF (or strictly probably even if you export as text).

This needs the usual health warning – I am not a legal expert, what is more I can just be plain wrong :-). Anyway I don’t like this condition and I have written this blog instead of playing with the software.

How to (do) AVOID planning


I have long been a fan of the GTD approach and have recently been rereading David Allen’s book on Getting Things Done. Indeed I bought 10 copies and passed them out to colleagues working on the OLnet project as I believe his ideas and methods can only help people. BUT in reading his book I have had some difficulty in getting the match between PROJECTS and ACTIONS. The focus is on action but unless these make sense in terms of projects then it is hard to get going and decide what to do. GTD offers good advice compressed into about a few pages (p62-p81 in my UK edition) yet somehow I could not make that advice stick or pass on the ideas to other people. Until the beginning of the summer when I came up with a variant: AVOID planning!

In AVOID planning you focus on five elements:

  • AIMS: What you need to achieve
  • VISION: The impact and hopes you have for what you will achieve
  • OPTIONS: The ideas and choices you have for things you might do
  • ITINERARY: The outputs you are after and the deadlines to do them by
  • DO: The next actions that need to happen to move forward (and then the next and so on ….)

Notice the split between aims and vision. I have found that people are often asking for what is the vision behind a project – but then treating the result as if it was the guide to what has to be done. Splitting this into an aim and a separate vision has solved this dilemma for me.

The AIM is then something that might be relatively straightforward such as to “write a blog post about the AVOID planning”. The aim should in general something you would be happy to be held to. In effect the promise you are making yourself that you can deliver on.

The VISION is where you let yourself imagine the other side of success. In the vision think about impact and everything working out. So the vision might be “Blogging about AVOID planning helps those I work with to be more efficient and know what each other are doing and then it gets picked up as an approach for the unit, the university, the world … leading to a new role as an efficiency guru.” Visions, including this one :-), may contain aspects that you might not expect to achieve but if you miss spotting them may rein in what you do and the connections that can be made.

OPTIONS is where ideas should flow. Gathering all the things that you might do. In this section remain in brainstorm mode without being too critical about the ideas generated. Options are optional so record each idea without thinking of them as commitments. So can have options such as “Make a Powerpoint presentation about AVOID/Put an animated podcast together with voiceover on YouTube/Blog onto my personal openpad site/Link the method to a session at the next team meeting/Write an AVOID planning book/….”.

In ITINERARY is the chance to pause and put in a reality check. What actually has to be done and when by. If there are hard deadlines then they go here. This would be a good place to link up with any more traditional planning that is going on. E.g. if you want to make a Gantt chart or spreadsheet then put it here. This can also be where to describe deliverables if that is what the driver is for the outputs. For the blogging example the hard deadlines were initially missing but having now said that I will run a mini session at a meeting I have an Itinerary of “Blog post/Put slides together/Team meeting (October 12)”. [Of the letters in AVOID the I is the one I am least sure about – for a while it was Inventory but I found Itinerary fits better but is a bit tricky to spell. I would consider other options.]

Finally DO. At the planning level too much effort can go on trying to get the list of things to do right and to be sure about the options that have been selected. Rather the DO section is really a hand over to however you track your actions. What does need to be identified is the Next Action level. A project without any Next Action is one that is not going anywhere. So again in my self-referencing example the Next Action was “Set a date to talk about AVOID” and now is “Draft a blog post about AVOID”.

How to AVOID plan

I have now been running AVOID planning myself for about 3 months and shared the method with 5 or 6 other people. I have found two key ways to apply it. First as a solo activity, second as small group planning/brainstorming. The process is similar in each case but in the solo version it can be carried out fairly quickly with worthwhile results in 15-30minutes while as a group activity it will take a bit longer but combine very well with other techniques to draw out the options (for example with think-pair-share). I will describe what I do when working this through with myself of perhaps one other person:

Think about something you are working on that is perhaps just getting going or a bit stuck. E.g. writing a report. This should be viewed as a project with steps along the way. Create a document call it e.g. [project]-AVOID-[date] with headings:






Now work your way down the list as quickly as is feasible. Write the commitment under AIM (you might find at first you need to list some alternatives and refine) then let your ambitions loose and write out all that might happen when you succeed under VISION.

In independent brainstorming mode then fill in the OPTIONS. I find this can be quite liberating and make you realise that you have ideas that you need to get down before you let them go – even if you cannot see them as feasible or even necessarily good ideas. In this category for me are the ones that would be good if they happened but might cause everyone far too much work! But record it without being too critical.

Then the ITINERARY pause – what is really pressing and has to be done soon. What is the eventual target. It is often the case that there is no real end date imposed in which case put in best guesses. This can also provide the section that is a checklist of progress. If there need to be visible outputs such as progress reports, final reports etc. then note here. Treat this section as grounding after the options section but do not over plan.

Under DO it might be that there is not very much to record at this stage but there should be for yourself at least a clear Next thing to do.

Working with Toodledo

I find Toodledo a great help in running a GTD style ToDo list. Now that they have added notes it is also a good platform for organising projects and a home for AVOID plans. I won’t go into the details here but do advise signing up for a free account (following this link with note that I recommended you or just go direct).


I think most of what I have written here can be found in David Allen’s GTD book. What I have done is pick out the section that matters when planning and also come up with the AVOID acronym. Whether this makes a difference for others I don’t know; it has helped me remember and adopt this five stage approach to planning and to bring a few others on board without just saying “read the book”!

No thank you for iPad


Recently at work we bought a couple of iPads. These are in the hands of Martin Weller and Karen Cropper both of whom are now keen users. Last week Karen let me have her iPad to use for a week and I expected it to hook me as well. There certainly are some nice things about the iPad – it feels good to browse with it, Flipboard is a great way to follow streams, reading books in iBooks feels slick, and playing iBubble on its large touch screen is addictive. BUT in the end it was not for me and I was able to give it back into Karen’s eager hands without any great wrench.

The reasons for this I feel fall into two parts. First there was just too much that did not feel as if it worked as well as it could. This is exactly where the strengths of Apple normally lie, but on the iPad the wi-fi was too flaky and the missing camera limits possibilities. For me the disappointing capabilities of two add-ons flag up that this machine is not as good as it could be: the VGA adapter only works for some programs, and the SD card reader only allows thumbnail views.

This brings me to my second point that the iPad underperforms as a work machine. I had thought it would be great to use the touch features for collaborative brainstorming; but I could not project to the large screen. And I expected to take photos and instantly put the camera card in to show them off; but to do this I had to slowly pick and transfer the files first. In particular I thought the iPad would be great for having PDF documents loaded to replace paper in meetings; but too cumbersome to switch between the documents so I was better off with my laptop (and best off with paper!). I also was in a meeting where five other people had iPads – the effect was of looking at the top of people’s heads as they found documents or made notes. I felt more part of the meeting behind my laptop screen.

Throughout my week I kept putting the iPad to one side and using my Macbook Pro instead. The one win at work was when I had to carry out workplan approvals – a job where I needed to bring up page after page and click a button, this was much more satisfying with the touch screen rather than a mouse.

The iPad does feel like a first generation – I remember feeling just the same when I got an early model iPod Touch. That has been transformed by software upgrades and hardware improvements so that I am now a constant user of the iPhone 3GS I have (though notably it is not my phone – that remains an ancient Nokia).

At the moment then  no iPad for openpad, but I suspect I will waver in the future – though whether this time Apple has gone too far with its gradual upgrading approach and will allow others too leap ahead remains to be seen. Philosophically an openish Android would better match my views than the proprietary iPad so my colleague Liam Green Hughes may yet win in this argument!

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