What Sheila’s seen this week – 1 year on, thinksup and what is a learning technologist?

This week I marked my first year here at GCU. I can’t believe how quickly the past year has gone, and as I completed my annual review I’m quite pleased with what I have been able to do in the last 12 months, but also frustrated that I haven’t done more. Still Rome wasn’t built in a day . . .  Highlights have been GCU Games On and the work I’ve been doing with Evelyn McElhinney on online residency.

Earlier this week I signed up for a free 14 day trial of ThinkUp an analytics service that  “gives you daily insights about you and your friends that you can’t find anywhere else.”   I found out that I had been tweeting longer that the hashtag has been in existence and that I have sent 25,799 (and counting) tweets. That’s 4 days 11 hours 29 minutes of my life. One day I will actually do some work :-)

In the meantime, the notice board in my office is filling up with coloured bits of paper.

picutre of my office notice board

My office notice board

David Walker and I have been delighted with all the feedback here on the blog, via twitter and email that last week’s “what is it about learning technologists?” post has generated. There’s still time to have your say before we start writing the chapter so please keep the comments coming.

Stuck in the middle with . . . open #oepsforum14

During her ALT-C keynote this year, Catherine Cronin quoted Michael Apple , reminding us that “education is inherently an ethical and political act”.  Both Catherine and her fellow keynote Audrey Watters gave a rallying call for us all to create our own narratives and provide an alternative to the emerging and dominant (neoliberal) narratives around education.  Yesterday at the OEPS forum, Martin Weller also brought up the need to create new narratives, particularly in relation to open education, in his “Battle for Open” keynote.

I’ve written before about my concerns about who can afford to be open, and again it was in the context of the OEPS project. I don’t want to revisit that, however I think there is a danger that the lasting narrative of this project could be subsumed into the larger narrative of the OU. This worries me.  Not because I think that the OU shouldn’t have its own narrative around open education. It has, and continues to do excellent work around opening up access to education and resources. It’s more a niggling fear that a project which states:

“The Opening Educational Practices in Scotland project facilitates best practice in Scottish open education. We aim to enhance Scotland’s reputation and capacity for developing publicly available and licenced online materials, supported by high quality pedagogy and learning technology.”

doesn’t really seem to be able to articulate (yet) how this Scottish narrative is going to be created, shared and be distinct from the wider OU story.

I think an opportunity was missed yesterday to have more a more constructive dialogue with people working in Scotland and to start joining up a few dots about what is/has happening and how the project could play a really effective role in supporting practice.

I do feel for the project team as they are really caught in the middle of a Political ( and I think this is a case of a capital P) decision to give a substantial amount of funding to the OU, and not to other Scottish institutions or indeed to the grass roots movement of Open Scotland who have worked in a largely unfunded capacity to raise the profile of open education in Scotland.

I know it is still early days for the project, but I think that there are a number of things that they could do to mitigate some of the uncertainty, and to an extent unease, that I (and I suspect some others) have about the project. And surprise, surprise, open is the key.

The project has an opportunity to really push the boundaries in terms of open governance.  A number of institutions are on the project steering group. So, why not have names of the members and perhaps a short statement on their particular interests in open education and their hopes for the project/ways they think they will be involved?  Let’s see steering group minutes on the website too. The project is also reporting to Universities Scotland, let’s have any updates share on the website too.  Why not take a leaf out of the OER Research Hub and have an open project evaluation framework on the website?  Again I’m sure the project are working on their evaluation criteria, but there is an opportunity to involve the wider community in this part of the project too. In terms of sustainability and sustaining change in practice having commonly agreed and shared evaluation criteria is really important. They could be the bedrock for the many narratives that the project could support.

And just because it’s been running round in my head  – here’s that song.

Is there something about Learning Technologists? #EdTechBook

photo of a cloud that looks like a question mark
Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504443770/

What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Learning Technologist, those qualities that serve to identify them and differentiate them from other roles?

This question is at the heart of a chapter I’m writing with David Walker (@drdjwalker) for a new #edtechbook edited by David Hopkins (@hopkinsdavid) – and we want your input!

As the role of Learning Technologist has develop and evolved across the further and higher education sectors, many early career Learning Technologist are now in senior positions, spread across a variety of departmental locations and increasingly have responsibility for developing and actioning learning and teaching strategies and frameworks.

For the chapter we plan to draw on our own career experiences to examine the case for the distinctiveness of the role but also to highlight natural synergies with others working across institutions and cases where worlds sometimes collide. What we really want however is to frame the discussion with contributions from the community, so via the medium of blogs, Twitter or performance dance we’d love your thoughts on the following questions:

Q: What makes a Learning Technologist and how does the role differ from those working in IT Support, the Library or Careers?

Our thoughts: Although many LTs have come from an IT support role, they now need to have a far more holistic and pedagogically grounded view of the use of technology for learning and teaching. Learning Technologists tend to work in a more staff facing role, so the relationship with students and the curriculum is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) different to other colleagues such as IT support staff/ librarians/ learning advisors/career advisors.

Q: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Learning Technologist?

Our thoughts: David and I have had quite long ranging discussions about this. We think that central to the role of the Learning Technologist is the relationship they (we) have with the curriculum and curriculum/learning design. In our own experiences we have seen a shift away from the showing people what buttons to press to a far richer dialogue around effective use of technologies that best suit overall pedagogical objectives and disciplinary practices. So a Learning Technologist is always thinking about the processes related to effective learning and teaching. The relationship learning technologists have to curriculum design and design principles is something we both feel strongly about.

Q: Is there something fundamental that distinguishes Learning Technologists from educational developers? Do we still need both roles?

Our thoughts: If a fundamental part of the role of a Learning Technologist is their knowledge of educational design practice then should we be evolving into educational developers, or is this still a distinct discipline?

Indeed as new job titles such as Learning Technology Advisors, Learning Architects etc emerge does anyone really know? As more “senior” Learning Technologists take up more senior positions within larger departments/directorates (that often include librarians, educational developers and Learning Technologists working side-by-side) and are responsible for developing and actioning learning and teaching strategies/frameworks and increasing the quantity and quality  research does it really matter? Are we just grappling with the same issues but with a bit of TEL goodness thrown into the mix? Is TEL research mature enough to be seen as distinct from traditional educational development research, and should it continue to be so? Or as our digital and physical learning environments continue to evolve, are we now seeing the need for new a hub/space with people that work there providing effective bridges between traditional spaces such as disciplines, educational development, developing digital literacies, the curriculum, research, staff and students?

A key milestone in the professionalisation of the role of the Learning Technologist, and acknowledgement of the roles increasing significance in pedagogical design processes, became apparent with the launch of the Higher Education Academy’s revised UK Professional Standards Framework in 2011. The updated framework – a set of professional standards for the HE sector to facilitate benchmarking and align professional development provision – emphasised the need to afford greater recognition to the role of emerging technologies, and importantly, the need to extend opportunities to undertake teaching qualifications to all staff working in HE with teaching responsibilities. The wider recognition of those who provide significant input to the process of supporting teaching and learning ensures that individuals, such as Learning Technologists, are able to access and engage with relevant development opportunities – such as Postgraduate Certificates in Higher Education. By acknowledging the wider array of stakeholders who contribute to the educational environment and student experience, the revised framework offered the potential for institutions to align the professional values and practices of those actively engaged in teaching and learning. For Learning Technologists the revised framework provided a basis against which to evidence their professionalism (for career progression, reward or other forms of recognition) and a mechanism to guide their ongoing personal and professional development.

Which leads to our final question or perhaps answer . . . has the role of the learning technologist evolved into that of the digital pedagogue?

We’d love to get some community input, so if you have any answers/thoughts about these questions and our answers please share them in the comments section, or via twitter using the #EdTechBook hashtag and we’ll try and incorporate as many of them as possible into our chapter.

Reflections on the #oerrub agile approach to evaluation

image of reports

Dull but worthy . . .

(image: http://pixabay.com/en/notes-office-pages-papers-print-150587/)

I’ve already posted some reflections on the agile approach that the OER Research Hub has been developing. In this post I’m going to try and share some of my reflections on my role as an evaluation consultant to to project and the agile or flexible approach we have developed to my input and (open) outputs.

Evaluation should be a key part of any research project, built in from the start and not something that is just left until the end of a project. However,sometimes it can slip off “the list”. As well as evaluating actually research outputs, it is also important to evaluate the processes that a project has used. In the case of the OER Research Hub, evaluation has been build in from the start, and their own, open, evaluation framework details their evaluation approach along with a pretty comprehensive overview of project evaluation.

Having this framework has made my role as an evaluator much easier. I had a very clear starting point with specific questions developed by the team which were driven by the overarching aims and objectives of the project. The framework guided me in my exploration of the project and focused my discussions with the team.

However, the framework is just that, a framework. It doesn’t “do” the evaluation. One of the things I have really enjoyed about my role with the project has been the flexibility, agility and open-ness of the team in terms of my input and in turn outputs.

Last year I worked with the project as they approached the end of their first year of funding. At that stage the project was still in the early days of its collaboration developments and data collection and so my main focus a review of the work so far, and to work with the team in terms of dissemination planning for the remainder of the project. I was also actively encouraged (in fact it was in my contract) produce blog posts as outputs. This is, I think still fairly unusual for evaluation activity, but it fits well both for research project about OER and open education, and my own open practice.

Other outputs from me included what I called my “brain dump” of my initial reactions and thoughts on the project outputs so far, some SWOT analyses, and a “dull but worthy” summary report. These were shared only with the team.

Even in open research not everything can or in many cases should be open, particularly if, as last year, the evaluation is focusing more on the mechanics of the project rather than the outputs themselves. I am a firm believer in making things open, but that what “stuff” you decide to make open is useful. Some of my outputs were only of use to the team at that particular time. However, the sharing the overall approach in a open way via this post is probably a more appropriate, open and (hopefully) useful resource for others.

This year my role has evolved again to more of what I would call a more of a critical friend. The project funders, the Hewlett Foundation are conducting their own evaluation of the project, so I have been working with the team in reviewing their outputs in relation to the focus of that evaluation. As with last year there has been some flexibility in terms of my input and outputs, but again blog posts have been part of the contract. This year I have spent most of my time meeting and talking with the team. I have seen my role more about encouraging reflection and talking through the teams next steps in relation to their data, findings, dissemination and sustainability.

It’s the latter where I think the real challenges lie. I don’t want to steal the thunder from the project, but they have got some pretty good evidence on the impact of OER (emerging findings are already being shared via their infographics page and blog posts). Their OER impact map is already providing an innovative and meaningful way to search and explore their data. But what next? How will the work and findings be built on both in the OU and the wider (open) education community? Will this project provide a secure foundation for an emerging research community?

These questions are key not only for the project, but also for their funders. The Hewlett Foundation have spent a lot (over $100 million) on OER over the past decade, so what is next for them? In terms of mainstreaming OER has the battle really been won? Martin and I have slightly different opinions on this. The project research is showing some really strong evidence in a number of areas in terms of winning/impact. But we are still only scratching at the surface and most of the research is pretty much North American focussed. Some of the models and evidence, particularly around text books, doesn’t have as much relevance in other parts of the world. More global research is clearly needed and is very positive to see the collaborations the project has developed with organisations such as ROER4D.

Building a new research community and discipline take time. However having a research element built into projects could provide additional stimulus, security and as well as short and long term sustainability. Is the future of the OER Research Hub as a set of static tools and guidance, or something more organic that provides a focus not only in supporting to grow a research community, but also in aggregating up evidence and sharing wider trends back to the community? In parallel with the continuum of reuse of OER highlighted, surely there needs to be a continuum of research.

Again I will be producing another “dull but worthy” report along side my blog posts, but if you want to join a wider conversation about open reflection and evaluation have a look at the current Open Researcher Course. There is a week of activities dedicated to the area, including a couple of good overview videos from Leigh Anne Perryman who also wrote the OER Research Hub Evaluation framework.

Where Sheila’s been this week – revisiting #OERRHub and the researcher as an API analogy

I spent the early part of this week in Milton Keynes with the OER Research Hub team as part of the second phase of the project evaluation.

When I worked with the team last year one of the things that intrigued me about the project was the fact that they were planning to apply and adapt an agile programming  approach to the project.

As I pointed out then, I felt there could be challenges with this as typically the outputs from research projects aren’t as concrete as most software development products, but I could see the attraction of this approach.

Bringing researchers who form part of a globally distributed team together for set periods to focus on certain aspects of research project does make sense. As does having some kind of structure, particularly for focusing “group minds” on potential outputs (products), adaptation of peer programming could be useful for peer review etc. However implementing “proper” agile programming methodology to research is problematic.

But if we stick with the programming analogy and stop thinking in terms of products, and start thinking of research as a service (akin to software as a service) then maybe there is more milage. A key part of SaS approaches are APIs, allowing hooks into all sorts of sites/ services so that they can in effect talk to each other.

The key thing therefore is for the researcher to think of themselves more as the interface between their work, the data, the findings, the “what actually happened in the classroom” bits and focus on ways to allow as wide a range of stakeholders to easily “hook” into them so they can use the outputs meaningfully in their own context.

In many ways this is actually the basis of effective digital scholarship in any discipline and of course what many researchers already do.

A year on, and after experiencing one of the early project sprints how has it worked out?

Well everyone knew that the project wouldn’t be following a strict agile methodology, however key aspects, such as the research sprints have proved to be very effective. Particularly in focusing the team on outputs.

The sprints have allowed the overall project management to be more agile and flexible. They have brought focus and helped the team as a whole stay on track but also refocus activity in light of the challenges (staff changes, delays to getting surveys started etc) that any research project has to deal with. As this is very much a global research project, the team have spent large chunks of time on research visits, going to conferences etc so when they are “back at the ranch” it has been crucial that they have a mechanism not only to report back and update their own activities but also to ensure that everyone is on track in terms of the project as a whole.

The sprints themselves haven’t been easy, and have required a lot of planning and management. The researchers themselves admit to often feeling resentment at having to take a week out of “doing work” to participate in sprints. However, there is now an acknowledgement that they have been central to ensure that the project as a whole stays on track and that deliverables are delivered.

I was struck this week by how naturally the team talked about the focus of their next sprint and how comfortable and perhaps more importantly confident they were about what was achievable. It’s not been easy but I think the development, and the sustaining of the research sprint approach over the project lifespan has paid dividends.

Returning to the wider API issue, last year I wrote

I wonder if the research as API analogy could help focus development of sharing research outputs and developing really effective interactions with research data and findings?

Again, one year can I answer my own question? Well, I think I can. From discussions with the team it is clear that human relationships have been key in developing both the planned and unexpected collaborations that the project has been undertaking. At the outset of the project a number of key communities/agencies were identified as potential collaborations. Some to these collaborators had a clear idea of the research they needed, others not so much. In every case as the research team have indeed been acting as “hooks” into the project and overall data collection strategy.

These human relationships have been crucial in focusing data collection and forging very positive and trusted relationships between the Hub and its collaborators. Having these strong relationships is vital for any future research and indeed, a number of the collaborations have extended their own research focus and are looking to work with the individual team members on new projects. As findings are coming through, the Hub are helping to stimulate more research into the impact of OER and support an emerging research community.

One of the initial premises for the project was the lack of high quality research into the impact of OER, they are not only filling that gap, but now also working with the community to extend the research. Their current Open Research course is another example of the project providing more hooks into their research, tools and data for the wider community.

The project is now entering a new phase, where it is in many ways transitioning from a focus on collecting the data, to now sharing the data and their findings. They are now actually becoming a research hub, as opposed to being a project talking about how they are going to be a hub. In this phase the open API analogy (imho) can only get stronger. If it doesn’t then everyone loses, not just the project, but the wider open education community.

The project does have some compelling evidence of the impact of using OER on both educators and learners (data spoiler alert: some of the differences between these groups may surprise you), potential viable business models for OER, and some of the challenges, particularly around encouraging people to create and share back their own OERs. For me this is particularly exciting as the project has some “proper” evidence , as opposed to anecdotes, showing the cultural impact OER is having on educational practice.

In terms of data, the OER Impact Map, is key hook into the visualizing and exploring the data the project has been collecting and curating. Another phase of development is about to get under way to provide even more ways to explore the data. The team are also now planning the how/where/when of releasing their data set.

The team are the human face of the data, and their explanations of the data will be key to the overall success of the project over the coming months.

More thoughts to come from me on the project as a whole, my role and agile evaluation in my next post.

Where Sheila’s been this week – student summer of innovation and known-ing things

On Wednesday this week I had a fantastic day in London with the successful Jisc Student Summer of Innovation projects. Building on from last years project, I think this is one of the best things Jisc has ever/is doing. It truly is putting students at the heart of the student experience. If you aren’t familiar with the programme you can find out more here. Basically students pitch their ideas for improving the student experience online, then via a process of voting and review a number of projects are selected to receive funding to develop their ideas along with mentoring and advice during the process.

I managed to spend a day in August with the projects as they refined their original ideas, and this week it was inspiring to see just have far they have all developed in such a short time. What fascinates me too are the clear themes and issues that the students themselves are identifying as areas that need new student facing services.  Feedback, study support, mentoring support both in terms of students at uni/college and those about to start all featured last year as well as this.  Hearing statements from students during their pitches stating “there is no culture of feedback in HE’ is a wake up for all of us. I don’t think there is a Uni in the country just now that doesn’t have some kind of assessment and feedback project/guidelines/support, but clearly some students aren’t seeing the impact of those yet.  Data was a big thing with the projects too – analytics, dashboards formed a large part of the pitches from a number of the projects.  This may be partly due to smart thinking from the project teams.  Data  and analtyics is not only an area that Jisc  is very keen to develop new services in, but it is also a reflection of the “data is the new oil” mentality in software development more generally. There are still huge assumptions that data from every service will actually be useful and that people (staff and students alike) will have time and capability to act on it in meaningful ways.

Alan Greenberg, former Education Executive at Apple also gave talk on “education technologies, insights and contexts”.  His insights into the business side of developing technology for the education sector was I’m sure invaluable to the projects.  I have to say, parts of it made me slightly uneasy as it did seem to be leading to a very content centric, and reductionist data driven view of education.  I know ultimately Jisc does want to develop some of these projects as market ready services, which is great. But imho, the strength of this whole programme is the experience that it is giving the students. Not all the ideas will be able to become services, or be successful.  Not all the project teams have time to fully commit to them as they are still studying. However the impact of the experience they are part of will stay with them, and having this safe space to experiment is really, really important. I’m sure it will stay with them for the rest of their lives and impact on whatever they do next.  Below is a my sketch note of Alan’s talk (note to self, don’t leave home without ipad or coloured pens again!)

Notes from Alan Greenberg talk, 17 September 2014

And finally, something I was going to write about last week but didn’t. Following David Kernohan’s “you’ll never hear surf music again” talk at ALT-C and the general “twitter isn’t what it used to be we need to move somewhere else” debate, in an attempt to keep up with the #edtechhipsters, I’ve been looking at Known, a new social publishing platform. Last week I wasn’t quite sure how I would actually use it and how/where it fitted into my existing online spaces. However last night after voting in the Scottish referendum, I want to share something more than a tweet or Facebook status update on how I was feeling. I remembered  Known and I’m now seeing it as a counterpoint to this blog, which will remain very much work related and focused.



Living with the VLE dictator

You know how it is, you listen and read to some “stuff” (and seriously great stuff that is worth listening to and reading). It sets all sorts of triggers in your head about how you work, what you do, and more importantly what you can do to in response. You get a great title for a blog post, then you see from your network that someone else has pretty much written what you had been thinking, but far more eloquently than you. At this point, dear reader, you really can just read this post The False Binary of LMS vs Open from D’Arcy Norman.

However, as the roots of this post were really seeded by listening to Audrey Watter’s recent Beyond the LMS presentation at the University of Newcastle, and as I’m still thinking about her ALT-C keynote and the importance of non North American narratives, I’m going to continue with my tuppence worth.

“Blackboard sucks” – that’s the consensus right? But as Audrey pointed out, even the new LMS/VLE kids on the block are selling their products by saying things like “it’s like just like Blackboard, except it’s blue like Facebook”. They are all about management, administration and not about the learner. They are built on a very traditional model of education. They are walled gardens. If you haven’t listened to Audrey’s presentation, you must.

As I was doing just that on Friday, a number of things were swirling through my head. At this point I probably should mention that here at GCU Blackboard is our VLE and for quite a while I have been mulling about writing a post titled “why I quite like Blackboard”.

Had it taken less than a year for me to be indoctrinated by the evil dictatorship that is Blackboard and by default all other VLEs? Am now I a willing conspirator in maintaining their status quo? Shouldn’t I be leading the insurgency or at least doing more to fight for open? At the sametime, scarily I was thinking terribly un-pc thoughts about benign dictators holding things together, and wondering if I could write a witty, yet well informed post comparing educational technology to the current situation in the Middle East or closer to home the Scottish independence referendum. I quickly realised that I probably couldn’t.

This morning via my networks came across D’Arcy’s post. And as I said, he had kind of written my post. Like D’Arcy, I work with and support the need for the boring, but oh so important administrative functions that our iteration of Blackboard support and that are needed for teaching and learning just now. If we got rid of Bb, I think it is fair to say there would be a fair amount of chaos for our students and staff alike. I have been in several meetings over the last year where a new shiny (and sometimes not so shiny) thing has been talked about with almost awe and wonder. This despite the fact that it just duplicates what are already doing within Bb but without the crucial integration “thangs” that automagically assign modules to students and staff. In these cases I have very much been advocating sticking to the ‘devil we know”, and trying to have a more holistic conversation about learning, where and how it (could) takes place in our context. I don’t want us to just move to something else that does the same thing only with a slightly nicer interface – if we are going to jump I want that jump to matter.

Too often our some of my colleagues really have no idea about what our students and staff are actually doing in terms of collaboration, networking. Because they don’t see it everyday, they think it doesn’t take place. Bb is one of our most stable systems too which again often goes unnoticed and unreported or there is an assumption that no-one uses it.

We are encouraging and seeing more sophisticated use of learning technology across our institution, we are committed to blended learning not only in the sense of blending f2f and online teaching, but also in terms of blending the systems we use. We can (and do) blend third party systems with Bb. Increased use of specs like LTI is opening up new possibilities. Bb themselves are going through some big changes and have been very supportive in listening and reacting to our need. Oh yes, I hear you sigh, that’s because they want to continue to get your business. Which of course is true, but from what I can gather that hasn’t always been the case.

Of course, changing culture is the key to making any technology have an impact in education (or anywhere else), and Audrey did highlight that in her talk. Much as I would love to experiment with more open, connected, student owned technologies such as the example she gave of the “domain of their own” the University of Maryland Washington, the culture in my institution isn’t quite ready for that yet. But it is a great example and one I will be sharing with colleagues and looking to see if we could do anything similar. I am seeing an increasing positive trend in terms of portfolio development which encourages and facilitates networking and open sharing by students.

Networks are also crucial for staff to share ideas, narratives, experiences, and often for me a sanity check. Realistically I don’t have enough influence in my institution to make sweeping changes, but I hope that I can bring ideas back from my network which can help move forward, or at least open up some different debates around our thinking and development of learning and teaching. I need to hear people like Audrey to make me reflect on my practice and share ideas with my internal nework.

So, although in one sense I may be living within a dictatorship, I do believe it is a changing one, one that is trying to catch up with evolving expectations. I may not be leading an insurgency but I hope that I am able to influence changes from within so that we have a truly flexible infrastructure and support mechanisms to allow the space and security for some radical thinking and changes to take place.