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10 years of Edtechie – the imposter gang

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 02/05/2016 - 12:11
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Today marks ten years of blogging here at edtechie. I had started a few blogs before, but this was the time I stayed with it. That ten years later I’m still doing an activity which is not part of my formal job description, is not recognised and is usually undertaken in my own time is a testament to the power of blogging in itself. But I’m not going to make this a ’10 reasons why you should blog’ post. I was struck by a comment Sava Singh made in her presentation at OER16 when she said that even complaining about how Twitter used to be better in the old days is a sign of privilege. She’s right, we old timers have a temporal privilege – anyone coming in to blogging now is starting out in a very different context. I recall Pink Floyd saying that they were lucky that when they started there weren’t many bands around, so they were given time and people who might not listen to them came to them for want of anything else. This is a very different scenario for an artist now, who must compete within the deluge of daily releases. And so with blogging, I had the good fortune to be able to build up a reputation when there wasn’t much around, it would be a very different story now. So, I’m aware that my story is not necessarily applicable now, but it’s the only story I have. So apologies in advance, this is a self-indulgent post.

As I’ve considered writing this post over the past week or so, I’ve reflected on why I personally like blogging. I don’t mean all the reasons we often give people, such as establishing an identity, increasing dissemination, keeping a record of your process – all those are valid extrinsic motivators, but what is it about blogging that appeals to me. I came to the conclusion that blogging was where I felt I really belonged. I had found my academic tribe.

People talk a lot about imposter syndrome now. Again, I appreciate I have a set of privileges which mean it is only a fraction of what others may feel (white, european, male), so please interpret this in light of how it shaped my blogging reaction only: I was comprehensive educated, working class, first generation at university. I was educated at a range of polytechnics, which post 1992 became new universities: Hatfield, Kingston, Teesside. All good places, but not the key to a network of influence. I didn’t feel any sense of being an outsider whilst studying because fellow students at Polys tended to be similar to me in upbringing. I definitely did feel it when I started working at the OU. I remember my first coffee break after joining in 1995 – everyone was Oxbridge educated, older than me and generally middle class. One colleague recounted a story of how Edith Wharton had bought him a train set when he was young. Yeah, we’ve all got stories about our family’s friendship with a famous author haven’t we? I felt like (and probably was) a yob. For the first year at least I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “sorry, we made a mistake”.

But everyone was friendly and supportive, and such feelings subsided. But it was with the advent of the web, and encouraged by my OU colleagues John Naughton and Tony Hirst (probably both outsiders also) that I took up blogging. At the time blogging amongst academics was still relatively rare. I used to tell people excitedly “I have a blog”. Now that would be akin to saying “I have a microwave” – not guaranteed but not worthy of comment. Blogs were like little beacons shining across the globe that would splutter in to life and look for fellow signals to respond to. I fell in with the North American and UK ed tech blogging crowd. And this is why I think blogging resonates with me – I generally like bloggers. I don’t like all bloggers and I don’t dislike non-bloggers, but there is something about the approach to blogging – the informal use of language, the sense of fun, the support, willingness to try new things and the personal, social element that appeals to me. I think nearly all of the bloggers who influenced me (George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Audrey Watters, Jim Groom, Bon Stewart, Alan Levine, Scott Leslie, Josie Fraser to name just a very few) were outsiders to formal academia to an extent. Indeed I think you had to be an outsider in those early days to get blogging. That’s probably why there was an inverse relationship between online and academic reputation. Blogging was the refuge of the outsider. This is less true now when it is an accepted part of a communications strategy and you can take courses on being an effective blogger. It is now more professionalised, but I still think it represents a more democratised, open space than formal academia and I still make new connections with people here. As a tenured Prof at a big university I can’t really claim outsider status any more, I’m one of ‘them’ now. But blogging was where I found an authentic voice and I still cherish that. Bloggers are still my kind of people.

I don’t know what its role is really in relation to my ‘proper’ work, but I’m okay with that now. When I retire I expect that the three people who turn up to my retirement party (under duress) may point to formal publications as an indication of my work, but I can think of no higher honour than if they declared “he was an allright blogger”.

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IT services – we need to talk

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 25/04/2016 - 18:33
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I was at two conferences recently (OEGlobal and OER16). At both of them I ended up in a (different) group bemoaning the IT services in their university. I didn’t initiate either of these conversations I should add. Also, please do not interpret this post as having a pop at people in IT services, I know lots of good people there. Rather it is about how universities have created the environment where academics and IT are now in a rather dysfunctional relationship. Across many universities the complaints seemed to be rather similar:

  • Security is used rather the same way Governments use terrorism – as a means of controlling things and removing freedoms
  • Increasingly academics have no control over their machines, and cannot install or trial new software
  • Even basic tasks are often highly frustrating and time consuming
  • Support has been centralised so there is no local advice or help
  • Senior IT managers have been brought in form other sectors with little understanding of the university culture
  • Increasingly academics are circumventing official systems to buy their own machines, or host their own services, often in their own time and at their own expense
  • There is little room for experimenting with tools beyond the VLE

Listening to these complaints (and occasional horror stories) made me rather wistful. As IT has become increasingly part of the central operation of every university’s teaching and research environment, it seems that it has moved further away from the people who actually need it for those functions. It has become a thing in itself, and the academics (and students), merely an inconvenience in its smooth operation. This is not to blame those in IT services, they are operating in the context that universities have established for them. If there is a security breach, it will be the IT manager who is in trouble, not the academic who wanted to play around with a cool new tool. It must be frustrating for lots of people in IT also, I’m sure they’d like to be experimenting with tools also.

We have to get back to having dialogue, and having IT people who understand the needs of universities (and equally academics who understand the demands of IT systems). The need for innovation in universities is often trumpeted, but it doesn’t arise from stony soil, but rather from the stinky, messy fertiliser of failed attempts with less than perfect ideas and tools. Innovation is not necessarily synonymous with digital technology, but often it is deeply associated with it. If you don’t have freedom to explore this stuff then increasingly universities will struggle to compete with ed tech companies who have more flexibility and freedom.

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Should bid proposals be open access?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 08/04/2016 - 09:57
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I was at a UNESCO OER meeting in Paris last week (impersonating an important person) and a topic that came up a couple of times was the waste of resource that we just accept. Someone highlighted all the EU funded projects which are difficult to search, or find outputs for. They were from an AI, machine learning background so they wanted access to this to discern patterns and create links between projects.

In the Battle for Open I talk about how much effort is wasted in the current bid writing proposal:

Some of the inherent waste in current practice often goes unnoticed, because it is accepted practice that academics have been enculturated into. For example, some researchers can spend considerable time, months even, developing research bids to submit to funders. Stevenson (2013) calculated 3 months for a proposal, but the Research Councils UK found that 12 days for a conventional proposal was the average (RCUK 2006). The success rates of bids are decreasing as it becomes more competitive; for instance, the ESRC state that only 17% of bids were successful in 2009–10 (ESRC 2010). If a bid is unsuccessful then sometimes it will be modified and submitted elsewhere, but often it is simply abandoned and the researcher moves on to the next one. That equates to a lot of lost time and knowledge. The RCUK report in 2006 estimated that £196 million was spent on applications to the eight UK research councils, most of which was staff time. The number of applications increases every ­year – ­there were 2,800 bids submitted to ESRC in 2009–10, an increase in 33% from 2005–6, so this figure is likely to have increased significantly. Some of these 2,800 proposals were studentships, which have a higher success rate, but even taking an optimistic figure of 800 bids accepted to account for studentships, this still leaves 2,000 failed bids. If we take RCUK’s figure of 12 days as an average per bid, then this equates to 65 years of effort, and this is just one of several major research councils in the UK and Europe to whom researchers will be bidding. Obviously this is just an indicative figure, and there are many assumptions in its calculation that one could challenge, but nevertheless, the nature of research as it is currently conceived has a lot of waste assumed within it. This is not to suggest that the ­peer-­review process is not valid, but that the failure to capitalise on rejected bids represents a substantial waste of resources. As with open source software and OER approaches to teaching, open approaches to research may provide a more efficient method.

That was 65 years of wasted academic effort for just one research council in one country. And many of these are never revisited. That is a very inefficient way to operate. While research bodies have tackled some aspects of openness, for example mandating publications are open access, and have searchable databases for funded projects (eg the ESRC one), they don’t tackle this waste problem. The simple solution is to make all bids openly available also (I’m not aware of a funder who does this, but please let me know if there is one). Maybe not all aspects, individuals and institutions may want to keep salary costs, or overheads private, but the main idea and methodology could be made available. Others could then build on these, as well as allowing the type of meta interpretation my friend at UNESCO was interested in.

But this probably wouldn’t be easy to realise, and it really gets at the difference between an open culture and a more circumspect one. The research system overall may benefit, but there would be risks to individuals. For example, research teams in more expensive countries may never get funded because the funders know that if it’s a good proposal, someone else will take it and adapt it for half the price. Would people be cautious about what they shared in research bids? People do alter and resubmit so would this undermine that?

There would be some adjustment required, but if we’re using CC-BY (maybe even CC-NC) then the original party would be credited. The point of research is often not just that you have the idea, but that you have the ability and expertise to conduct it also, so it wouldn’t simply be a case of lowest bidder. This would be a more radical step to an open research culture. Part of me is just sad at all those very good research proposals that never see the light of day.

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Types of OER user

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 07/04/2016 - 09:45
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For the GO-GN we are relaunching our webinar series. These will be the first Wednesday of every month, 4pm UK time. They are aimed at anyone with an interest in OER research, and will feature external guests, GO-GN students talking about their work and also research advice sessions. So, put a reminder in your calendar, details will appear on the GO-GN website.

I did the first of the new series, using it as an excuse to trial my talk for OEGlobal and OER16. It was looking at types of OER user, based on the findings of the OER research hub. What with OER movement being 15years old now (depending on when you date its inception), I’m interested in the strategies for engagement with OER. In the talk I propose three types of users:

  • OER Active – these generally know what you mean if you use the term ‘OER’. They are engaged, have knowledge of licences and act as advocates. An example might eb a community college teacher who adopts an open textbook and becomes an OER champion.
  • OER as facilitator – these are people who want to achieve a particular goal, and are only interested in OER in as much as it allows them to realise that goal. This might be flipping a classroom, saving students money or increasing retention.
  • OER consumer – this group just want high quality resources and will use OER amongst a mix of other media. They don’t really care about licences, but they d care about good, easy to use material. An example might be a learner considering entering formal education and seeing if the subject is for them.

If these groups have any validity, then they have implications for OER strategy. I would suggest that thus far most of the attention has been focused on the OER active group. This has been a successful strategy, but there may be limits. You can’t make everyone an OER convert. To reach the other groups different (but complementary) approaches are required.

For instance, the OER as facilitator group want packaged solutions. It may be that we can identify five or so key aims here, eg teachers who want to flip their classrooms, those who want to create distance education type all inclusive courses, particular subject areas, etc. For these a packaged OER based solution can be created so they can more readily achieve their goal. This is the type of activity that commercial providers offer. They know that teachers are busy people, and offering convenience is a key benefit. For the OER consumer there is a need to improve the overall OER brand. Usually OER project funds are spent on producing good quality material. But we don’t have a very good cross OER brand, so maybe there is a need to bring in marketing, SEO and promotion expertise, so OER can compete with publishers who have whole departments dedicated to this.

The replay of the presentation is here.

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What are the research questions for OER?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 17/03/2016 - 09:16
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When we developed the OER Research Hub project with Hewlett, we came up with 11 hypotheses that they and we felt represented questions that it would be useful to find answers to. Some worked better than others to be honest, but it was a good way to shape the research of that project. We got the questions largely right I think, and this led to more people wanting to collaborate with us.

But it was still very much our interpretation as to what was significant, and this was back in 2011. A lot has changed in the OER world since then – we’ve had MOOCs, open textbook projects are getting solid results, we’ve seen the demise of JORUM in the UK, lots of new players have entered the arena, etc. So it would be a good time to revisit the key research questions for the OER community. This isn’t for any project we are running, so it’s not “what should the OER Hub research” but more widely, what does the community as a whole feel are the research questions that should be addressed? For the OER Research Hub there was a focus on trying to establish evidence for what were perceived as long held beliefs about OER. It may be more targeted now, for example, if it could be shown that OERs have an impact on this very specific aspect of education (for example retention), that would be a key piece for influencing decisions.

To this end, we’re running a couple of workshops at OEGlobal and OER16 to explore the research questions for the OER community. I’m sure you have an opinion regarding key research questions, so please complete this mega-short form to let us know. And if you’re at either of those conferences please come along, but if not, we’ll run some online discussion also.

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Openness as feature

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:41
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(going with the “if in doubt, use one of Alan’s pics” approach)

Sorry, this is two ‘open’ posts in a row, I’ll blog something else soon (if you want something very different, I’ve started a film a week blog, it’s reassuringly uninformed).

There have been a few announcements recently that made me reflect on the co-option of ‘open’ in a commercial sense. The first was Amazon’s Inspire announcement where they look to be getting into the OER game. Amazon & OER, that is big time and has Battle for Open written all over it. It could be amazing, it could miss the point of OERs altogether. Audrey Watters blogged her reaction to it, but I guess we’re playing a wait and see game at the moment. I will say, as far as I know, the Amazon team haven’t spoken to people in the OER world and haven’t previously engaged with that community (not that they need to of course, they’re Amazon, but they might learn something useful).

The second was actually an old article (from 2014, practically prehistory I know), that I only recently came across. It was predicting how SOOCs (selectively open online courses) would be better than MOOCs, because SOOCs would have “an entrance requirement designed to reduce the unwanted diversity.” As the kids say: I can’t even. Unwanted diversity? Selectively open?

One more – a piece in Inside Higher Ed about Coursera beginning to charge for more of its MOOCs. The piece says that learners can explore freely but “To turn the course materials into an actual course, learners have to pay.” The Coursera blog said ““We are on a mission to change the world by providing universal access to the best learning experience, … The changes that we are making this year will move us toward sustainability and enable continued investment in our learning experience, without compromising our commitment to transforming lives for people around the world.”

What these highlight to me is that openness is a feature when you’re developing a business model or technology. Will it get you more money or users? If yes, then adopt it. If no, like any feature it can be dropped. Compare this with universities and non-profit organisations for whom openness is a principle. It is embedded in what they do, and matches their core mission (or should do, although the increasing commercialisation of universities may see more ‘feature’ based thinking). So while the announcement of any big company that they are adopting open gets headlines and is exciting, it is worth examining to what extent is it a feature versus a principle?

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Positive openness

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 01/03/2016 - 15:54
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I’ve been mulling around something on how openness ain’t what it used to be for a while. I’m not sure I’ve got it, but a few strands are converging.

Firstly, the way openness is framed now is really as free. Tressie McMillan Cottom gave a good presentation at ICDE last year, in which she highlighted that the new forms of openness do not create the equality many had assumed. For instance, it is mainly elite universities that adopt open source LMSs, whereas poorer community colleges sign up with commercial providers. And both for OERs and MOOCs, the learners who use them most tend to be well educated already and from privileged backgrounds. Simply making something ‘open’ itself does not lead to equality or democratisation, and in fact may increase inequality.

This arises because ‘open’ has become largely synonymous with ‘free’. But openness is something much richer and more complex than this. In order to make things truly open, then free may be the least interesting element in the overall equation. You need to provide support structures, to specifically meet the needs of the audiences you feel might benefit from open. And that costs money. So not only does the equating of open to mean free underplay other elements, but it also falsely gives people the impression that this is a cheap option. It is not. Support for openness usually requires people, and they are often the most expensive component in an education system. Whether that is supporting learners on MOOCs, or supporting teachers to adapt OERs, the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy only applies to people for whom the route is already easy. It also gives a lower return. The audiences you might want to benefit from open approaches are likely to drop out more, get lower grades, earn less than the guaranteed successful people. So now openness is more expensive and gives lower success rates. It then becomes less of a Silicon Valley dream investment, but it does become more of a social good.

The conflation of open with free has nearly always been to the detriment of the people openness is intended to benefit. So we need to get away from it: Accept that openness costs money somewhere in the system if you want to do it properly, or stop calling it open education.

My colleague Rob Farrow has been coming to this from a philosophical perspective. He has been thinking about how currently open is framed as an absence – eg the removal of restrictive copyright. In the presentation below he frames it using Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is the removal of constraints, whereas positive liberty carries agency. Both are required, but I think Rob’s point is that we’ve focused on the negative liberty aspect hitherto and now need to move to the positive liberty aspect:

Constellations of Open from Robert Farrow

This might be a useful way of thinking about the type of supported openness I mean here. When the Open University was founded it developed a model called “Supported Open Learning”. Note that it wasn’t just “Open Learning” – without that ‘supported’ part the rest falls away. This is my resolution for this year, to look at open education ventures and ask ‘yes, but where’s the positive openness?’

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The non-Uberization of education

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 22/02/2016 - 14:45
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I have tried to avoid writing a piece about Uber, because, well I just lost the will when I thought about it. There is a very strange tendency in technology writing to take any successful business and view it as a universal acid. All of the commentators and tech media go on an obsessive hunt across every sector: THIS MUST APPLY EVERYWHERE!! is the mantra. So we get “Uber for [insert sector of your choice]” pieces everywhere. I guess they’re easy to write, and people seem to like reading them. I think they appeal to the “get on the bus” fear argument I mentioned in the previous post.

Inevitably there have been “Uber for education” pieces – Nassim Taleb says we will bypass institutions and go straight to instructors (because people approaching a world famous expert is exactly the same thing as a nervous, financially poor learner getting started on a subject who doesn’t know how to proceed, of course); the inevitable start-up (InstaEDU) which gets bonus points for almost literally stating the get on the bus argument (“Are you the one still hailing a cab or are you calling an Uber?”); rehashing the unbundling education argument; and on and on.

The basic idea is that universities will be made redundant (for about the fourth time since 2010) because individual learners will go direct to a marketplace of private educators. What people rarely write is why a sector isn’t like Uber. That’s probably because no-one wants to hear this, and anyone foolish enough to write such stuff would have to be some kind of curmudgeon who was like, not with it, Grandad. Well, hello there. So here is my attempt at such a post.

It’s important to understand the key elements of the Uber offering:

  • A taxi ride is a brief interaction. It helps if I like the person, but it’s over in 15 minutes, so I don’t have to worry too much about investment in it.
  • A taxi ride may vary in some local colour in terms of car, environment etc but it’s essentially the same product everyday and anywhere in the world.
  • It is something that a lot of people possess the equipment for (a car) and the capability (driving)
  • I know what I want from it (to get to my destination safely and at low cost)
  • Getting a taxi is largely a solitary pursuit
  • It utilises mobile technology and pervasive connectivity to overcome some of the limitations of the previous model (waving down a cab)

Hardly any of those conditions apply to education, which has the following characteristics:

  • It requires a long time frame (certainly longer than 15 minutes usually) to gain the required outcome.
  • It is very diverse, both geographically and by discipline, so any model would require such diversity and thus be difficult to use, compared with the simplicity of Uber
  • While there are a lot of people who can act as tutors, the ability to construct a curriculum or design a learning activity that can be effectively delivered online is quite rare. Also while gaining a driving licence is fairly easy, being licensed to offer formal credit for learning is very difficult.
  • Meno’s paradox goes something like: If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. Put simply, if you’re a learner in a new discipline then you don’t know what it is you need to know. So it is very difficult to bypass institutions that are constructed to help you overcome this very problem. (Incidentally, Meno’s paradox undermines nearly all ed tech startups which rely on the autodidact model, but no-one’s ever told them)
  • Learning is often a social activity that is undertaken with a cohort of people with similar interests, goals, etc
  • Education is already engaging with online learning and mobile delivery, so it’s not obvious it is solving a problem

I think there will be aspects of (really, really for want of a better phrase) Uberization of education. Indeed they’re already here, and are just part of the changing approach to workforce. For instance, it is often difficult for an institution to compete with an individual consultant on price for research that doesn’t require large resources. Writing a review, conducting interviews, etc – the overheads of a university add too much to a bid compared to someone working out of a home office. Similarly the online tutoring model which seems to be such a revelation to many, is already underway. I think this will expand, particularly in combination with OERs and MOOCs. But I suspect it will be largely in conjunction with higher education, not in competition to it.

The appeal of apps and businesses like Uber is their simplicity. It’s not impossible to address all of the reservations I’ve set out above in some Uberized fashion, but it would end up being a complex, unwieldy affair that would defeat the very object of its existence. And that is the biggest difference between Uber and education – getting a taxi is simple, getting an education is complex. That’s why we value it highly – after all, you put letters after your name to indicate your education, not to show how many taxi rides you’ve taken.

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Why open practice?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 22/02/2016 - 13:40
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I gave a presentation recently trying to set out the arguments for engaging with open practice in higher education. I’ve shifted from the “because it’s awesome” argument to a more nuanced one. My starting point is that open practice is a smorgasbord of components from which one selects those parts that you feel most comfortable with and will most benefit your current role. For instance, an academic might be interested in developing a personal online profile, and also in open access. A librarian in open access, OER and an institutional profile. A researcher in open data, licenses and knowledge exchange, etc. However, a smorgasbord is a simplistic metaphor – it’s also a stew of different ingredients and it is difficult to extract one component from another. If you’re in for OER, you get a taste of online identity too. You can probably add your own food metaphor now. The point is that it’s not one thing, and thus we end up talking across a wide range of issues from “should I use Twitter?” to “what are the sustainability models for OER?”.

I presented four arguments about why people working in higher education should at least be aware of open practices:

  • The “get on the bus” argument – this states that openness is happening, you’d best get with it or else you’ll be left behind. I’m not keen on this, vaguely threatening, line of persuasion. We saw this with MOOCs and many university principals I think felt they “get on the MOOC bus or die” pressure. But there is something about a coalescing group of driving factors around openness – funding, mandates, platforms, licences, institutions – that gives weight to the argument that something is happening here that is worthy of attention.
  • The “it’s good for you” argument – I’ve outlined benefits of open approaches elsewhere, and this is what I used to focus on. There are many good reasons for engaging with different aspects of open practice – it’s good fro you, your institution, your project, society as a whole.
  • The “you need to understand this stuff” argument – however, there are downsides to various aspects of open practice. However, having an appreciation of these and how they affect you, your institution and your students (if applicable) is essential as aspects of them may be forced.
  • The “if you don’t control it, someone else will” argument – openness has commercial traction now, and as I’ve written about elsewhere, there are lessons from recent education history here. The LMS, publishing and MOOCs all became controlled by external forces, often to our disadvantage in education.

It may be that you’re involved in similar discussions in your place, so here is the slide deck if it helps:

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The control of your network

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 08/02/2016 - 13:51
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(photo by some guy called Alan Levine)

There was much anxiety this week about the possible move by Twitter to an algorithmic feed, where some magic (see previous post) determines what comes up in your timeline, instead of the chronological order of everything we’re used to. Whether it goes ahead or not, what this highlighted is the power we have given over to a commercial organisation to shape our community. There is a real dilemma here – this stuff (social media, online identity) is only worth investing time in if it has real value in your life. But then as soon as you invest that value in it, any changes have a potentially big impact on how you work, communicate, portray yourself and even sense of identity.

Increasingly one answer to this is to own everything yourself – the whole reclaim hosting movement. Or another is to deliberately opt out of any of this online invasion, as many savvy kids are doing. But even with self-hosting there are networks, tools you need to connect with others (even Jim Groom is still on Twitter after all). And the opt out option requires a dedication to resist and a surrendering of much of what is useful.

This concern over Twitter controlling our network made me appreciate that, actually, as academics, our communities have always been shaped by others. Prior to social media the way you developed a network of peers was often through conferences, and collaboration. These are highly regulated practices – to get funding to attend a conference you often have to be presenting a paper, it has to be deemed a relevant conference, and it needs to be affordable, which often means local. To collaborate people have to find you – this can be through existing networks, recommendations or through publications. Academic publishing is again, a highly regulated practice – only certain types of papers are published. Disciplines themselves act as boundaries, making it difficult to build professional relationships with people in different subject areas, because you simply wouldn’t read their academic papers, or go to their conferences. For want of a better phrase, there was a cultural hegemony which shaped the people we got to know as academics.

Social media changed this drastically. Although the democratisation card may be overplayed, there was certainly a flattening (the prominent people online were often not the people with a high citation index for example), and a broadening of the range of people in your network. You could communicate in different ways, and these were powerful methods for making all sorts of connections with others in many different countries, disciplines and roles. Now I could make connections with someone in, say, classical studies from South Africa, because I connected with the person, found they were entertaining on twitter and wrote accessible blog posts. This reforming of the academic landscape is a process we’re still going through, and is the type of thing Bonnie Stewart, Inger Mewburn and Katy Jordan are all researching.

I don’t really have a solution here, but I think we’ll see waves of openness and closed practice. The very liberating opening up of networks that arose with online, social media, web 2.0 etc is now being controlled and increasingly begins to resemble the old ways. But there’ll be a new one along soon. Every great revolution is ultimately disappointing and needs to be revisited.

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The alchemy of ed tech

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 28/01/2016 - 09:49
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Image from Public Domain Review
(replace this with an architecture and data flow diagram)

I’m reading a few popular history of chemistry books at the moment (notably Mendeleyev’s Dream and Napoleon’s Buttons). One theme is how the history of chemistry was plagued by the completely bogus notion of alchemy. The idea that base metals could be transmuted into gold dominated any dabblings in chemistry for centuries, and kept reappearing in different cultures and at different times. “This has to be possible, right?” was the persistent motivation. The dogged pursuit of alchemy was characterised by the following:

  • Greed – unlimited wealth awaits!
  • Obfuscation – it persists through rumour, and secret formulas, adding to its allure. The process is never made public.
  • Magical lexicon – this obfuscation works not only by being secretive but by creating a language that is difficult to penetrate
  • Vagueness – although the ultimate aim (Gold!) is clear, there is a lot of vagueness otherwise about benefits (immortality, spiritual awakening, general goodness)
  • Occasional unexpected side benefits – almost inevitably given the time devoted to it, there would be the odd chemical breakthrough which occurred as a side benefit of alchemy, for example, the discovery of phosphorous
  • Persistence despite results – obviously no-one ever got alchemy to work, but this complete lack of success was only seen as reason to continue. It had to be true, dammit! Hundreds of years, and some of the best historical minds (hello Isaac Newton) were involved in this fruitless pursuit.

Now, is it just because I have a particular mindset, or does this set of characteristics sound familiar? As I was reading it I kept thinking of the ed tech equivalents of alchemy. Goals that are pursued at different times, in different guises and never actually realised. I would suggest the “gold from base metal” dream of ed tech is automated, personalised tuition across all subjects – essentially the removal of the human educator. We’ve seen this with industrial systems, early AI, MOOCs, and now new improved AI. I think it matches all of the characteristics of alchemy I’ve given above. We do get breakthroughs, and automatic tuition and assessment is possible at a fairly simple level. Let’s consider the similarities with my alchemy list:

  • This offers vast riches for the discoverer who can sell the product at great cost, because this will still be cheaper for providers than employing people. The education market is estimated at $6 Trillion annually. That’s pretty much turning base metal into gold.
  • It is frequently obfuscated by commercial interests with black box algorithms. They only report questionable results which are difficult to verify because we don’t know the underlying transformations.
  • It has its own lexicon of algorithms, learning analytics, intelligent systems that increasingly becomes to look like magic.
  • There is often a vagueness around improved efficiency, retention, learner satisfaction, democratisation of learning, etc. All of these are actually worthwhile goals to pursue in their own right, but there is a magpie tendency to grab the latest concern and say “yes, we can help with that too. Plus, did we mention we can turn lead into gold?”
  • Accidental side benefits – this intensive work with algorithms and data does have some benefits, learning analytics that help educators improve their course design for instance. But this isn’t the real goal
  • Persistence – Audrey Watters has talked of “zombie ideas” in ed tech that just refuse to die. Certainly automatic tuition is one of these, no matter how small the gains are, there is always the sense that it is ‘just about to happen’.

Just to be clear – I am NOT saying ed tech is rubbish. I love ed tech. It has provided genuinely new ways of teaching and reaching different audiences. It can solve very specific issues and offer lots of benefits for learners. My objection here is to the overblown claims, and the often unspoken alchemic tradition that persists in ed tech. The way to combat this is openness (of data, algorithms, claims, results), focusing on very specific problems to address (instead of grand revolutions) and calling bullshit when we see it.

Like alchemy I fear we will waste time, effort, money and good minds on the pursuit of a really big, unattainable goal instead of focusing on smaller, actually achievable ones. What if we say we don’t think you can, or want to, remove the human educator from the education process. If we accept that as a premise, then what can we now go on to do with ed tech? Just like with alchemy once they stopped trying to produce gold, they went on to discover elements, invent medicines, create all manner of new materials that can be used in the objects we use everyday, and so on (and yes, quite a few weapons along the way, but that’s another post).

NOTE:
I think I’ve heard others talk about the analogy of alchemy in ed tech. Certainly Audrey Watters has mentioned it a couple of times. But I can’t find anything in detail. My apologies if I’m actually just regurgitating something I heard once and have now mistaken for an original idea (it happens).

UPDATE:
In the comments Mark Brandon reminded me of this Blackadder scene. I’d meant to include it originally as it kept coming to mind when I was reading, but then forgot. It pretty much is the perfect analogy, thanks Mark:

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Patterns across an academic career

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 20/01/2016 - 14:40
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Will there be cake?

This year marks 21 years of me working at the Open University. I hope (as does my mortgage provider) I’ve got another 15 years or so left, but I’m edging “old timer” status now, so I was reflecting the other day about the difficulty of applying management to an academic career, if they’re all as wriggly and messy as mine.

Senior managers in higher education have my sympathy. There is increasing pressure to be efficient and cut costs, which means getting the most you can out of employees, combined with demands for transparency and accountability. Academia isn’t the ivory tower that people who post in newspaper comments section still believe it to be. I understand this, students are paying money and taking on debt, taxpayers are contributing via loans or research grants, and so on. Academia is not exempt from the pressures that every other career faces. So this is not a “why can’t they leave us alone to do magic” type post. Rather it is about the difficult of applying conventional management methods to academic careers.

At my institution we have a specified split between teaching and research activities, and are expected to plan work accordingly on an annual basis. This makes perfect sense as that represents the type of activity and funding the university as a whole realises. But it becomes problematic at both the individual and temporal level. I am currently in a research phase of my career, but previously, I was very teaching focused, and other times working on strategic projects. So across my career this split might be true, but during any one year it may not. Similarly, a Department may want to achieve this split overall, but it is unlikely every individual can. Some people are good at getting research grants in, others are excellent at teaching. It is probably better to let people pursue the aspect they are better suited to than force everyone to have the same profile. I ought to say, in the OU management is flexible, and what counts under each category can be adapted, but it highlights the problem of trying to manage this.

Other universities are focused on outputs, so for example, Senior Lecturers are expected to bring in £30K research money, publish 2 papers, and supervise 2 PhD students per year. I was thinking about this over my career. When I was Chair of T171, it was an unexpected success, with around 12,000 students per year. It probably brought in around £100M over its lifetime (is it too late to ask for a 1% dividend?). So if I did nothing else, they’d be in profit from me over my career. But other years I have been tasked with actively spending money, eg when I was VLE Director or SocialLearn Director. So viewing on an annual or individual basis is again problematic. Similarly, some years I have written quite a bit, other years, I’ve hardly published at all.

Another approach is to break it down by career path. But, you’ve guessed it, this is problematic. For instance, I spent a period in mid to late 2000s developing my online identity, blogging, playing with tools etc, as part of an informal OU community that was exploring this stuff (with Tony Hirst for example). I did a lot of internal workshops around this time, encouraging others to develop online identities also. But I couldn’t point to any of this and say “it brought in this amount of money” or “it had this type of impact”. When I was developing T171 that was my “start-up” phase – working weekends, staying uo until 3am tackling issues, thriving on the stress of numerous deadlines. I could only do this because I was a) young b) naive and c) didn’t have children. I definitely would not be able to do it now. But then as you get older you have other roles you can take on, and things you can contribute that you couldn’t have done before. Others have taken more directly focused management paths through their careers. Unlike many professions there is not one, or maybe two, clearly defined paths in academia, that you can then easily plot people’s progression against.

Employment gurus tell us that in the future everyone will have 6 career changes, or hold 5 different jobs concurrently, one of which is shared with a robot. While the academic employment world has changed a lot (there is a lot more job insecurity around now than when I started), it is still a place where people can stay with the same institution for long periods. And trying to manage people at different stages in this process, with different skill sets and different paths, is a thankless and possibly fruitless task. But it might be useful to develop a set of patterns that people can be matched to, and then ensure that across an institution or department you have the appropriate mix of patterns.

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Being lost as staff development

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 14/01/2016 - 09:11
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In my last post I mentioned that I am studying an MA in Art History. This is not an area I know much about, not one I can even slide into easily. I don’t have much of the vocabulary, the skills of artistic analysis, the basic knowledge of art. So, I feel a bit lost much of the time. But it’s a well structured course, and I’m enjoying it.

This sense of being a bit out of my depth reminded me of George Siemens statement that learning is a vulnerable process. I think much of the learning experience is about negotiating that vulnerability. The problem is that by the time you get to be an educator you’ve largely forgotten what that vulnerability is like. I think it’s probably impossible to fully recapture what it is like to be an undergraduate, particularly if you’re a first generation student, and not sure if you belong here.

But studying a subject you don’t know much about at least captures a bit of that sense of vulnerability. I have many of the generic skills that much of a Masters is spent on building – critical reading, writing, organisation. But I don’t have the background knowledge in the subject itself. I chose a subject that was deliberately nothing to do with work, because I wanted it to be a break from work. But in doing so, I have also become aware of all those things that are important for unsure learners: clear structure, useful assessment, good signposting, technology that works, etc.

This has made me reflect that often when people ask their institution to fund a place on a course for them as part of staff development, they are required to indicate how it will relate to their work. They are encouraged to choose subjects that can be directly linked to work – an MBA, or education course, say. Now, I think there is lots of merit in studying those courses (I work on an MA in Online and Distance Education after all), but I also feel there is real value in studying something that is completely unrelated, and that gives you some sense of that vulnerability again. There is much of value for an educator in appreciating that anew.

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