Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Occupying digital space

Thanks to the enlightened policy of the Open University Press I can make available the text of my recent chapter Occupying Digital Space, originally one half of a chapter (the other half written by the wonderful Mike Neary) in John Lea's edited book Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE. If you enjoy my piece I encourage you to buy (or ask your institution to buy) the book.  It includes lots of wonderful practice-based case studies and opinion pieces alongside academic points of view on pedagogy in the C21st. Plus as an academic writer I want to promote a publishing house that allows me to make my work openly available to everyone who can benefit.

Read my chapter here.

 Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Engaging with the Dimensions of Practice

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Conference reflections: digital work and political futures

This was meant to be my reflections on last week's ALT conference: Shaping the Future of Learning Together, but like many people I know I've been distracted by the outcome of another conference, the Labour Party Special Conference to announce the winner of its leadership contest. My twitter stream has been a double-stranded flow of excitement about digital and political futures, with not much exchange between them. Some friends have even suggested that it would be good for me - and my twitter followers - if I kept my political views running in a separate channel to my work on digital literacies and digital education.

But it's hard not to notice how many people in the world of e-learning are dipping into the Corbyn stream. Hard not to be excited - if you care about education - that we have a Leader of the Opposition who wants to reintroduce student grants, who promises to reverse this Government's savage cuts to FE and adult/skills, and who views education as a 'collective good' that demands investment and safeguarding through a lifelong 'national education service'. Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can deliver on these promises, debates that we thought were dead and buried are coming back to life in front of our eyes.

And the unexpectedness of Corbyn's win, the loss of any certainty about how electors will respond to continued austerity at home and war/misery/emigration overseas, the questioning of apparently unshakeable economic verities by serious economists as well as climate change and anti-capitalist protestors - these should make us all very nervous of current 'futures thinking', or at least the kind that talks up the 'digital economy' as though we know exactly what that means. It might mean the dog-eat-dog of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism, or the 'sharing economy' that would have us monetise every skill we gain, every interest we entertain, and all the space in our homes and cars we aren't actually using to breathe in. It might look like the mechanical turk writ large, with human brain space rented out to projects determined by the demands of data. Or it might look like old-fashioned collectivism with the emphasis on digital participation and decision making. It might look like a lot of paid and unpaid work in caring for others, with the help of personal data services, the digital world a beautiful collaborative playground where we spend much of the leisure time we have on our hands. It might look like a world of infinitely permeable borders, or one of constant surveillance and control, or most likely both at once. We know it will be digital, or 'post-digital' if you must, but beyond that there's still everything to play for.

So perhaps I am working and thinking in a space where digital and political futures are intertwined. At the moment I'd call this space 'the changing world of work', and mean by that both the lived experience of working inside UK HE and FE, and the 'world of work' as reified in current education policy - as the entire rationale and telos of our students' learning, the 'real' against which our intellectual and pedagogical labour must finally be reckoned.

This year I have mainly been working on a project called Framing the Digital Capabilities of Staff in UK HE and FE. The project was funded by Jisc who will be publishing my report and other deliverables shortly. I've already used this work to inform a revised Digital Capabilities Framework which I hope will be useful to people working in this space. What I have to say here is in no way endorsed by Jisc and it arises from only a small area of my work for them - my review of the changing nature of work inside and outside the academy. I was lucky enough to talk with more than 60 professionals in HE and FE about their work and the role digital technology plays in it, and their thoughts have certainly informed my own. But the interviews ranged widely and none of the people I spoke to would necessarily draw the same conclusions that I do. With that important disclaimer, here are my thoughts on...

The changing world of work

Some people I know, looking as if they are working (CC Jisc 2014)

Many excellent researchers have studied work inside academic organisations: I have been particularly influenced by Lynne Gornall and her co-editors of Academic Working Lives (2014). Go read it if you want to know more. (This and all my other references can be found online here along with key stats, facts and quotes). According to this and other sources, academic and professional work is becoming:

  • less secure – rise of short-term contracts, constant restructuring, funding constraints;
  • shorter term – defined by short/medium term initiatives, often organised in flexible project teams (e.g. task and finish);
  • more goal-driven – KPIs, personal performance management, citation index, REF, NSS, teaching quality measures, service level agreements;
  • uncertainly located – open offices, hot desking, working from home, working across multiple campuses, working online;
  • more self-directed – rise of self-employment, consultancy, project-based working and enterpreneurship; also the individual's responsibility to constantly improve (the self as project);
  • multiple/hybrid – people doing more than one job (split contracts), roles crossing professions or specialisms;
  • technology-based – core processes carried out within institutional IT systems, some aspects entirely automated, rise in roles with IT-related responsibilities e.g. in learning technology, organisational data (NB this list is my summary of multiple sources).
Of course not all of these changes can be associated directly with the impact of digital technologies in education. They have arisen in a political context of constrained finances, increased competition for students and commodification of the student experience, an interest in the quantification of outcomes, and the favouring of managerial over collegial modes of governance. However, digital technologies have played a role both instrumentally - enabling governments and organisations to carry through some of these agendas - and also contextually, for example supporting the development of cheaper alternatives against which the 'value' of traditional courses is now to be measured.

Employability and the 'world of work' also penetrate every aspect of the student experience via part-time work, work placements, internships, sponsorships, and co-curricular activities reframed as tokens of employability. Employment is widely seen as making sense and ascribing value to the whole experience of education. And this wider world of work is also changing in comparable ways. It is becoming:

  • less secure, with multiple job and career changes and the rise of casual, part-time, informal and self-employment;
  • more entrepreneurial, via the 'gig' or 'sharing' economy (uber, AMT, clickworker, workfusion, mechanical turk) on the one hand, and on the other the rise of project-based working teams and internal marketisation (intrapreneurship) within relatively secure forms of employment;
  • fragmented in terms of attention, tasks, work-time and work-space, working teams;
  • multiple and hybrid, with simultaneous contracts/roles/projects/commitments in work and the monetisation of previously private pursuits, hobbies, personal time and space;
  • uncertainly located through disclocation from the traditional workplace and a rise in home working;
  • automated and/or at risk from automation, with up to 36% UK jobs likely to be lost in next 20 years; cognitive work is being done by a smaller number of people working collaboratively with IT and data systems.

Key career assets are now a person's immediately relevant capabilities, rather than (say) length of service, and these must be constantly updated, especially where digital technologies are concerned. So digital capabilities are essential to finding and retaining work and to managing multiple work roles. This is equally true of staff as it is of the students who are being supported to enhance their employability. 

Many people, perhaps especially women, find the flexibility of digital work a liberation. This has certainly been my own experience as a long-time single mother. I've also been lucky enough to work with many educators who are inspired by digital opportunities for learning and have shared that inspiration with their students. Across disciplines, digital technology is both an exciting new subject of scholarship and a whole new toolbox for discovery, exploration and the communication of ideas. But aspects of digital academic work cause frustration and stress. Staff worry about keeping 'up to date' (the self as project again), about growing demands on their time and attention, about information overload and the loss of boundaries between work and home. People who went into teaching because they preferred face-to-face contact with students to life in the archive or laboratory find they spend most of their time sitting at a screen.

Students too worry about the loss of face-to-face contact time, but perhaps more acutely about their own working futures. For a majority of graduates, the 'digital economy' has not meant high-value 'knowledge' work but white-collar labour in call centres and data departments, insecure self-employment, or piecemeal work in a hybrid (human/computer) service economy. Most graduates are exercising their entrepreneurialism to find, retain and stitch together opportunities to earn, rather than leading digital start-ups. Dougald Hine has spoken powerfully about the new graduate 'precariat', who have 'done everything right' but are still struggling to find meaningful work. And whatever their work, it is likely to take place in a largely digital setting, which brings its own stresses - cyberbullying, information overload, repetitive strain and other health risks, loss of face-to-face relationships - as well as new opportunities and new networks of support.

This precariat, and the young people on the brink of entering it, are significant among the people who have elected Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party. (If his detractors are to be believed, the rest are 'intellectuals', which puts education professionals squarely in the frame as well.)

Our relationship with 'work' as educators
Students Hold Up a Sign that Says "Free Education."
CC Michael Fleshman:

At this point I want to suggest that we have a responsibility, as educators, to involve ourselves in what it means to work in a digital age. This is true both of our own work and the work for which we are preparing our students. So far from being removed from the pressures acting on the wider economy, educators are in some ways in the vanguard (or firing line). Our work is quintessentially 'knowledge' work. Our workplaces are among the most hybrid (real/virtual) in the world, as I have argued recently in Lea's Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE. Rightly or wrongly, a 'passion' for our subject has long been held up as the defining quality of a lecturer, which makes us in some ways the archetype of the 'passionate' amateur who is C21st capitalism's fantasy worker. Unless we understand ourselves as particular kinds of worker - and producer - in the C21st economy, we risk being disempowered in relation to our own working lives, and failing to theorise and organise on our own behalf, let alone on behalf of others who are caught up in the same nexus of forces.

As far as our students are concerned, the employability agenda has for too long been handed down into the curriculum as a given, rather than opened up within the curriculum as a set of questions about what it means to be productive in a C21st society: what value particular subject areas bring to the defining challenges of our times, what it means to live (and work) well, and how work might best be organised. As well as enabling students to cope with their immediate economic realities, it is also our place to develop critical people who can question the technologies and technology-based roles they are offered, and find new solutions to the conundrum of how to work and live in a digital society.

There has been important work around the idea of students-as-producers of knowledge, for example at the University of Lincoln and behind the NUS' Manifesto for Partnership. As educators we can support that work through our teaching and curriculum practices. But we can also support it by putting our own working lives under a critical lens. Over the last decade the 'students as consumers' narrative has reframed our work as service provision to learning consumers and - more importantly - to their future employers through students as agents of productivity. Research has been obsessively quantified for its impact on measurable outcomes, ideally transferable into monetary terms. The fetish for quantity has obscured some of the qualities that really matter in educational work, such as the quality of relationships in a community of knowledge and understanding, or the quality of the relationship between teachers and students. 

Jonathan Worth’s keynote at Alt-C returned us to that relationship. He spoke about the vulnerability of learners, the trust they place in us, and the attention we must pay constantly to the workings of power in teaching/learning as in other close human engagements (photographer/subject, seer/seen, designer/user). He also alerted us to the changes of meaning and the altered nuances of power when these relationships are mediated online. Hidden in his talk I felt were some deep questions about the nature of professional work - photography, teaching, design - when technology equips and then exhorts people to 'do it themselves'. Whether taking selfies or taking part in self-directed learning, we are dispensing with a whole class of relationships with more capable others, or defining them as a supplement - a premium service - instead of a critical term in what was once a relational activity. To 'work' as an educator increasingly means to facilitate learners' engagements with various systems within which their identities, their knowledge and their capabilities are distributed, and not to engage with them in a relationship of concern for who they are becoming.

Laura's keynote, Inequality in Higher Education, offered us a wide-ranging interrogation of learning technology through the lens of social justice. She showed us how the question of what kind of society we want to live in is continually posed and (partially) answered by the work we do as educators. To give an example with which Laura and I have both been involved, we can ask how our work as open educators impacts on the distribution of educational opportunity. When we ask that question we quickly realise that open is not enough - that the wealth of new opportunities to learn are being taken up overwhelmingly by people who are already well resourced and well motivated. Where there is systemic inequality only systemic redress - organised investment in those who have been disadvantaged - can change the balance. Laura reminds us that while our day-to-day work rightly focuses on helping individuals to meet their aspirations, in the long view we are also helping to build a world in which everyone can thrive. She reminds us that education is care, and that care costs.

Whether our work as educators moves in the direction of social justice and human wellbeing is not something we can fully determine as individuals. Our actions are constrained by political and economic - and nowadays by associated technical - systems. But those contexts change, sometimes in extraordinary ways. The Corbyn train arrives, unannounced. Endlessly-announced transformations fail to arrive (see David Kernohan's brilliant recent post on the e-learning hype industry) or when they do arrive fail to take anyone where they want to go. There is nothing inevitable about how work will be organised ten or twenty years from now - that is for political action to determine. In how our work as educators is valued, the victory of quantity over quality is not pre-determined either. There is always hope. It's all to play for.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Post-digital provocations #4: 'in recovery from' the digital

I'm feeling lucky today. Just as i was preparing to write this final provocation and wondering 'what kind of recovery can I possibly offer?' a wonderful pdf landed in my intray. This report from the National Union of Students is called 'Radical Interventions in Teaching and Learning: How the partnership agenda can help create radical and inclusive learning spaces'. Alongside quotes from Paolo Freire and Nelson Mandela, it argues that:
  • a focus on students as consumers undermines the learning/teaching relationship, the ethos of collaborative knowledge-building and the capacity of learners to develop as human beings;
  • our current system of quality assurance in HE - driven by marketisation, standardisation, and human resource management - is measuring the wrong things and does not value radical, inclusive (or indeed any truly transformative) approaches to learning;
  • innovative technologies have a role to play but 'it is not the technology in itself that is transforming education and society; it is, rather, the creative ways in which people are using technology to educate and drive change'
  • 'We are moving towards a more open access environment, where access to research and teaching is more egalitarian, but also more open to abuse by market forces... the potential benefits of open and mobile access to learning resources could be marred by the profiteering of private providers or by the unfair exploitation of academic labour.'
You see how I just gave up summarising and started quoting. I am hoping to find out where this report is hosted so I can put in the link and you can read it in its entirety for yourself. I promise you, it will be time well spent.

Meanwhile, how does this tie in with what I originally planned to say today (my slides are here)? 

CC Perry McKenna:
My main message was (and is) this: if 'post-digital' means attending to agendas other than technology in education, that is surely what we need to be. There are much more important and - frankly - interesting things for developers to commit ourselves to. The NUS report highlights one of them: post-compulsory education has lost the democratising aspirations it had - however weakly theorised they may have been - as recently as ten years ago. We must ask how our institutions redress rather than entrenching inequalities of opportunity and outcome. 'Inclusivity' is the term used in the NUS report. Inclusivity (and again I'm quoting because I can't put it any better) 'not only means that teaching and learning takes account of students’ diverse backgrounds, but that we should be embracing this diversity by valuing and utilising the many different capabilities, expectations, aspirations and prior knowledge that students bring to their course'. Now digital technology can play a role here. Some kinds of disadvantage can be positively addressed in digitally rich spaces, such as sensory and accessibility problems, and problems of confidence in speaking out face to face. Providing of course there are appropriate resources, and the educational will and know-how to use technologies in this way. But other kinds of disadvantage are likely to be exacerbated, such as access to educational capital. Put simply, better-off learners come to college with better digital devices and better home-based experiences of using them for learning. So we can't afford to be blind to the role of technology, but technology is not the end-point of our development work: inclusivity is.

Looking beyond the crisis in education itself, we should be developing people who can tackle our most pressing human, economic and environmental problems, and who believe these to be their concern. As I argued in my first set of slides ('in the wake'), digital technologies are relevant to many of these probems. And as with inequalities of opportunity, we need to understand the contribution that digital technologies make to amplifying or dampening the crises around us. But as developers we need to move on from asking 'are there digital technologies in the curriculum?' to asking: does the curriculum foster an awareness of sustainability? of fairness and justice? of global citizenship? And then: what role do digital technologies play in this? We need to move on from delivering 'digital literacy' as a set of competences and ask how are students are becoming critical (and creative and empowered) in relation to practices of knowledge, and in relation to the tools they are offered to accomplish that.
 So if we better understand the ways in which digital technologies change the context for learning and development, how can we (do we need to) get over our obsession with the digital as an agenda for change? That is the last of the three questions I will ask delegates to discuss with me on Friday and that I have tried to open up in these posts:
  1. What real changes have digital technologies brought about in educational practice? ('in the wake')
  2. How do those accord with our values as educational developers? ('in response')
  3. (If we need to), how do we move on from 'digital' as a positive agenda for educational change? ('in recovery')
  Tune in to Collaborate at 0930 to follow live, or catch up with the outcomes here.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Post-digital provocations #3: 'in response to' the digital

In the previous two posts I talked about the digital 'mode of knowledge production' and the kinds of change it has brought about in educational relationships and practice. I argued that changes to the contexts of learning affect learners' relationships to their institutions and to each other and to us as educators. That changes in theory and method in academic practice, and in the content of curricula and in what is expected of graduates, are all influencing how we come to know things and to value what we know. I summarised these changes as generally making knowledge more fluid, and situations of learning more porous or 'leaky'. And I considered how traces of learning and development are easier to make and more persistent, both in the kind of records that learners make themselves and in the data trails that organisations (educational and commercial) make of them. A recent Times Higher article, for example, shows that academics and students alike are waking up to the implications of learner analytics for the relationships between students and institutions.

There are changes that I think time has shown to be less profound. The interactivity of digital media would for me be one, or the different terms used for independent learning when digital technologies are involved, though these have at various moments in the digital 'wave' seemed essential to its forward momentum. In my slides I also cautioned against substituting developments in digital technologies for political engagement with issues of equality and power, in the belief that entities such as 'the internet' or practices such as 'open sharing' necessarily entail more equal access to learning opportunity or more democratic institutions.

In this post I want to consider our response to digital transformations, and to do that in two moods, though I don't see them as distinct. One is an intellectual response or critique, and  the other is a felt response to the experience of living/teaching/learning in a world saturated with digital technologies. I wasn't originally planning to bring the second kind of response so fully into view, but a recent keynote by Audrey Watters at the ALT conference, followed by a seminar with Bonnie Stewart as part of the #scholar14 MOOC, have convinced me that it is necessary. That is, we must acknowledge our own feelings including fear, vulnerability, boredom and compulsion in relation to digital technology if we are to support students and staff in the same space. We must practice rigorous critique of the technologies we are offered to use, but also speak from our consciences and hearts, especially when we experience digital spaces being colonised by values that are antithetical to educational (and human) development.

My second set of slides is now available on slideshare. In the following slide I am wondering aloud what it feels like to think/act/be in online spaces that are simultaneously private and public, that are porous in ways we might not feel we have consented to. There is no one response, and one of the points I am making is that this feels very different depending on whether you are a man or a woman, from the global north or south, digitally and/or educationally empowered or not, and in other very personal ways.

For each of these there are negative feelings associated with either end of the axis. There is of course a middle ground where we are thoughtful, balanced, in control of our relationship with technology. Where I might feel (for example) neither fearful of interacting online, nor liable to behave disrespectfully to others. However, increasingly I seem to be able to experience both negative ends of the spectrum at the same time. In writing this keynote, for example, I am working obsessively on my slides, using Keynote and Google advanced image search, and cycling between them like my daughter's hamster on its little mouse wheel. I've just noticed that it's after midnight and I probably haven't got up from the laptop in three hours. At the same time I feel ungrounded and dispersed through the various media I am using and through the different sources I have open. I am slightly in despair at the impossible task of keeping up with all the exciting people who are blogging in this area (see my blogs to watch on the right). I also feel some guilt that I am dipping into various online discussions in order to snatch at what is useful to me immediately, rather than making my own stance visible or committing to participate over time.

I have hardly made myself vulnerable through this confession and I feel lucky that I participate online as regularly as I do without (yet) meeting with any significant abuse or trolling. But I see that many many women do experience this, from below the line responses to female columnists such as Hadley Freeman in the Guardian, to the reaction Audrey Watter received when she posted that 'Gamergate is an EdTech issue' on Hack Education. And in similar vein I understand that participating online, especially in academic spaces, feels very different if you are not English, not from the global North, not from an elite institution such as most UK universities (in a global context) are, not from a particular educational culture, not physically able, not digitally able, not a 'proper' student, (not a 'proper' academic)... Maha Bali's blog is an upbeat but sobering read on many of these issues.

So, as Bonnie Stewart has argued, we need to take care of each other in digital spaces, recognising that they engender vulnerabilities as well as opportunities. How much truer that is when the others are our students. In my final provocation tomorrow I will ask how we might recover from digital fall-out, and help our students to recover too, in ways that make us all more resilient.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Post-digital provocations #2: 'in the wake of' the digital

In this post I introduce the first of three sets of slides that would have been the backdrop to my keynote, had I been doing a standard keynote at the SEDA conference. However, as this is a flipped format I am making the lecture material available in advance, so that we can use the live session for discussion. The first topic I have called 'in the wake of' the digital, exploring the idea of 'post' to mean 'after' but 'not yet done with'.
You will find my slides on slideshare and my slides with audio on youtube. In these slides I look at some specific features of networked digital technologies from the perspective of their development up until 2014. I review the impact of these new means of production on academic practice, thinking in terms of educational content, context, theory and method. Finally I conclude that - while there are specific affordances of digital media for learning and communicating ideas, and specific opportunities presented by digital data at scale - the most significant overall impact for educators is to make learning settings and events more porous (leaky).
CC0 public domain license:
In my next post and slide set I continue the water theme and look at what that feels like - for learners and for educators - and how we develop a critical response to these changes.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

'Post-digital' provocation #1: mode of production

I've been asked to provide a 'flipped keynote' for the SEDA conference 2014, which this year is called 'Academic Development in a Post-Digital Age'. You can find the abstract for my keynote and more about the conference here.
As homework for the live keynote - and for interest if you have arrived here and don't plan to be at the live session at all - I will be posting three short slide sets with audio and notes. These will follow the three ideas I outline in my abstract: that we can understand 'post' to mean in the wake of the digital event, whatever that is/has been, in response to the digital, and/or in recovery from it.
Malene Thyssen,
By way of an introduction, today I want to examine my own assumption that the 'digital' (as in 'the Digital Age') is a mode of production. Economic theorists have coined the term 'cognitive capitalism' to distinguish today's economic relations from (say) mercantile or industrial capitalism, when - respectively - trade and conquest, and advances in industrial technologies, were the drivers of profit. Today, they argue, in a globalised economy and at an advanced stage of technologisation, innovation and information technologies are key. The same ideas may be more familiar as the 'knowledge economy', though I would question the optimism with which this term has generally been used (see for example this interview with Keri Facer from 2010). Whether or not we accept these overarching accounts of our C21st economy - which after all still has to produce real means of subsistence and shelter and good health as well as good ideas - still it seems to me beyond argument that digital technology is changing modes of academic and intellectual production. Research, sharing and disseminating ideas, putting ideas to use, teaching and developing new thinkers and innovators - none of the core functions of academic labour has failed to be radically changed.

These changes in the mode of academic production are accompanied by many social and organisational changes. I have argued before that digital technologies have been complicit in various political agendas for higher education and therefore in the present crisis of legitimacy that we face. Without digital systems, politicians might aspire to (but surely could not deliver) the degree of academic surveillance, rational planning, the obsession with metrics, or the casual assumption that our best measure of success is how well we provide 'skills for a knowledge economy'. (David Kernohan has blogged persuasively about this recently). Without their ease with just-in-time, just-for-me digital information, I wonder whether students would have been as quickly persuaded that higher education is essentially another customer service? These are the outcomes of policies, not technologies, but changes to the mode of production makes new kinds of policy possible. (New kinds of radical thought and action are also of course more possible, though I have deliberately chosen an article about the use of social media that is equivocal in its conclusions.)

I suppose what I am confessing to here is that I am a materialist. I'm still not sure exactly what that means in relation to a mode of production that is manifestly immaterial in most of its actions and effects. But I think it's to do with avoiding both idealism (thoughts and ideas exist independently of the medium in which they are expressed) and technological determinism (access to the internet will overturn educational disadvantage). It's attending to the specific technologies of this revolution, and the specific new educational arrangements and relationships that they are bringing about.
If we are 'post-digital' that cannot mean that the digital mode of production is over and done with, any more than industrial technologies are over and done with. We continue to depend on fossil fuels and mass production, even if they are deployed largely in distant lands, and we continue to increase our  reliance on digital networks and devices in everyday life. Perhaps, though, we are at the end of the beginning of the information age, equivalent to the point in the industrial revolution (about 1860?) when technologies that were no longer alarmingly new were adopted at scale (railways, electrification, production lines). Perhaps the first extraordinary digital wave has rolled over us and as we surface and catch breath we can see that this turbulence is the new reality - it is still rolling us forwards - and we have to find some other way of characterising what is new.

There will be more about academic development specifically in what follows, so please don't be put off by the theoretical flavour of this provocation. I'm just confessing my biases before I start. I welcome comments, contributions, tweets and emails, which I will incorporate into what follows. In particular I'd like to ask you: what do you understand the 'digital' in the 'digital age' to be?
Key influencers - though in no way responsible for my views - include Manuel Castells, Richard Hall, Laura Czerniewicz. Since first posting I've had my attention drawn to a recent SRHE conference on 'The Digital and the Material' - this twitter stream by Ibrar Bhatt references work by Martin Oliver, Donna Lanclos and Lesley Gourlay (among others) and considers how virtual technologies constraint/structure behaviours in the material world.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

OcTEL task on 'readiness' to learn online.

As I'm leading a webinar on the subject of 'learners' this week i thought it was time to engage with some of the content and comments in the ongoing OcTEL MOOC.
Week two's activities start with reviewing four questionnaires designed to find out whether learners are 'ready to learn online'.
Once I'd got over the 'online' learning bit - I had thought this was a general TEL course with the focus on blended rather than purely online learning - I decided to complete these questionnaires in as unready a way as possible. The Penn State feedback directed me to some general study skills resources. However, these were not at all suited to online students or even students with basic digital habits - for example the mindmapping tutorial only covered the use of pen and paper to create mindmaps. The San Diego questionnaire seemed very joky - in fact if I was unsure about using a computer I would find it frankly insulting - and the Illinois one though more serious had obviously not been piloted on any real students. In both cases the feedback only reinforced my deficits:
'Not only do you need to feel comfortable reading course content online, but you must feel comfortable with the technology used to deliver the information'.  

'you must be extremely self-disciplined, somewhat technologically savvy, and communicate through writing without ever meeting your instructor or peers face to face'
Need to? Must? How do I get better at these things?
The University of Houston questionnaire was the most useful in that it actually identified different kinds of aptitude that might support online learning and was reasonably serious in its approach, though the questions were extremely repetitive and again I wondered about piloting. Again i was directed to general advice about 'improving' my skills before attempting to learn online. 
While masquerading as self-help, all four of these questionnaires read to me like disclaimers designed to protect the relevant universities from irate students who may not have learned successfully online. They were not research-based diagnostic tools, and nor were they supportive signposts to relevant resources for prospective students.

I'd refer people interested in this kind of questionnaire to the one we created at Exeter ('what kind of digital learner are you?') which produces customised feedback with clear pointers to how students can build on what they already do. Bath have built a similar questionnaire, using our code but with categories mapped to Doug Belshaw's model of digital literacy. Neither are exactly research-based instruments, though in the case of Exeter it was based on interviews with real students. But both are intended to help staff and students appreciate the different skills and resources they bring to study, and explore how they can build on them.