The importance of blogging as digital storytelling.

Last Wednesday night, like many others I participated in the #LTHE tweet chat on the intrinsic and extrinsic value of blogging facilitated and led by David Hopkins.  As ever it was a fast and furious hour of tweeting. You can relive it via this storify.

The first question asked was “why do you write your blog? Conversely, if you don’t blog, why not?”

The reason I started blogging was very simple. I was told to. We had a change of direction in our web site at Cetis and it was decided that we would dynamically populate our web page from staff blogs. More than by accident than by design this approach actually worked with no editorial guidelines and a very minimal publishing process.  It did take me a while to find my blogging voice, but I am so glad that I did because my blog has become a central part of my working practice. More importantly for me it is actually my professional memory/portfolio.  If something significant happens I will blog about it.  Blogging is a bit of a habit for me, and as any writer knows, getting into and staying in the habit of writing is crucial.

As the tweet chat unfolded I was reflecting on how lucky I was to have been “made to” blog within a very open (in the sense of non-one told me what/how/when to write) and supportive environment in Cetis. Finding a reason to blog is one of the biggest hurdles for people to overcome.

During the conversation, there were many comments saying “I’ve got lots of half written posts” – I know that feeling well. Blogging can be great for professional development but conversely that can bring about its own pressures particularly around academic integrity.  If you are blogging with a professional qualification in mind, then you are probably inclined to write in a more formal, professional way. That takes time and the kind of time that not many have the luxury of, particularly if you blogging isn’t given as much recognition as for example a published paper, or an assessed piece of work.

One of the reasons I blog is that it allows me to write in a very informal, non academic way.  I am the first to admit that my blog lacks academic rigor. That’s one of the main reasons I keep it going.  It is a really comfortable place for me to start to play around with ideas, and to tell my stories. It has also help me to evolve my “proper” academic writing. For example, when David Walker and I wrote a chapter for The Really Useful Ed Tech Book, we used my blog to get feedback and comments for the chapter.

That said, I am aware that I’m in the somewhat luxurious position of having an established blogging presence. I don’t get nearly the same traffic on this blog as on my Cetis blog, but the numbers are fine for me. To be honest I’m not in it for the stats anyway.

As the chat went on, I did begin to think that if I was looking at blogging now, I probably would be like many others and still be a bit unsure, or start one and only post a couple of times.  I think I would be more inclined to look for a team/group blog so that the pressure of publishing wasn’t just on me. The TEL team blog at the Uni of Sussex is a great example of this approach. They have a schedule of posts and everyone takes a turn of posting.  We have a team blog here at GCU, however we haven’t got that organised. Importantly though we have a presence now and a place to share openly our activities. That is proving its worth in so many ways from just being able to remind ourselves of “stuff” and also sharing practice within the University and beyond.  We have somewhere to tell our story. And that is crucial.

The importance of constructing and sharing our own narrative of what is happening in education just now has never been so important.  Last week I also went to a seminar on digital storytelling, titled “powerful stories that empower others”.  There are so many powerful stories around what actually happens across our education sectors, we need to keep sharing them. We need to be our own digital storytellers. We all need to help fight the neo-liberal onslaught (oh my, didn’t think I’d actually ever write that sentence) that people like Martin Welller, Audrey Watters, George Siemens and many others are leading.

So if you have a couple of half written posts, why not take half an hour and post them?  If you do read other people stories and find the useful, share them – and every now and again leave a comment, that makes it all worth while. So come on, let our stories be heard, and make Simon Rae’s framework a reality.

Blogging framework image

Now I am 2

October 7th marks my two year work anniversary here at GCU. How time flies. I some ways I feel like I’ve been here longer and in others I still feel a bit like the new kid on the block.  Over the past two years along with my fabulous team colleagues  ( Linda Creanor and Jim Emery) I have been involved in a number of really exciting projects including our open event GCU Games On, the starting informal practice sharing through our Coffee Club, developing our blog and open Blended Learning resource site Will IT Blend?.  It’s taken almost two years, but we are now moving forward with learning analytics with our involvement in the Jisc Effective Analytics Programme which will be taking up most of my time this month.

One of the reasons I enjoy my current role so much is the fact that is allowing me to draw on all my experiences from my time at Cetis. I was reminded this morning that one of the things that actually got me interested and involved with Cetis was Learning Design.  I took part remotely in a new learning design practice network hosted by the OU this morning, and as we were doing the introductions, it hit me how long I had been involved in this area.

As we move more towards developing more fully online courses here at GCU, I have really enjoyed developing our learning design processes and methodology.  Most of the rest of the day will be spent planning our activities around this for this academic year.  I was heartened by the discussions this morning. I think there is so much effective practice still to be shared, but there is definitely a commonality of approach and challenges that we are all facing.

We are all creating our own “patchwork” approaches of bits and pieces of toolkits and processes such as Viewpoints and Carpe Diem.The investment from Jisc in learning and curriculum has really paid off in terms of helping mainstream practice and it is so heartening to see work from almost 7 years ago still having relevance today.

I’m trying to be a good “open practitioner” and share as much as I can of my work through blogging, tweets etc.  But it is harder the more embedded I become. Time is one issue, but also there is relevance. I want my blog posts to be useful to me ( I often think of my blog as my professional memory). Some weeks I do so many little things it’s hard to find a focus for a post – as well as the time.  For example last night I went to a really interesting presentation on digital story telling from a colleague from Brown University who is visiting GCU.  I doubt I’ll have time to blog about it, but it has made me think about trying to be a better digital storyteller.  In the meantime, and because every post should have a picture here’s my now obligatory doodle; and here’s to the next (hopefully more than) 2 years.

Powerful stories that empower others//

1000 blips on the wall 

For the last 3 years I have been sharing a photo a day on the Blipfoto site. Last year I missed one day, the year before 3 or 4, so I am determined to post everyday this year. Yesterday I reached a bit of a milestone publishing my 1,000th blip.

I really like the site, despite some uncertainty over the direction of the site when it was bought over by Polaroid, it doesn’t seem to have changed much. I like that i connect with a different set of people than on other social media sites. It feels more meaningful that Instagram, which I like and use too but it seems a bit more instant. A blip feels like it has a bit more longevity. Anyway hopefully I’ll make 365 this year and maybe even get to the next 1,ooo one day. 


Where Sheila’s been for the last few weeks: restarting learning analytics at GCU

It’s been a busy couple of weeks what with the start of the new academic session, and I’ve been using up bits of annual leave so haven’t really had the chance to blog for a while. I didn’t want to let another week go by, it’s too easy to let the blogging habit slip, so this is just a quick update post.

One project that is going to be taking up quite a bit of my time this month, is our involvement in the Jisc Effective Analytics programme.  GCU is taking part in the discovery phase of this programme. This means that we are working with consultants, in our case from Blackboard, to assess our institutional readiness, from cultural to infrastructure, for analytics.

My team have been trying to get a pilot project around learning analytics going for about 18 months, however due to various changes internally progress had stalled. However, now we have a new CIO and Director of IT, we are ready to start again. The support from Jisc gives us a great incentive to reappraise our current capabilities, and will give us a trusted, objective view of our capabilities. The analytics infrastructure Jisc are developing also gives us a possible route to develop our provision further as well as share our experiences within the programme and beyond.

We’ve already had meetings with the consulting team and so far we are impressed with the approach they are taking. Just now they are reviewing lots of documentation, including our new very recently launched 2020 Strategy. Having effective data and analytics capabilities will be crucial for us as we work towards the aims and objectives of the strategy.

I’ll be sharing more as the project progresses, particularly nearer the end of this month after the onsite workshops and interviews have taken place.

Coincidentally earlier this week a video of the invited talk I gave at the Talis Aspire conference in April was released (yeah, I take a while to edit me!) Anyway in it I had a bit of a rant about data, analytics etc.  I’m hoping that through this project we will indeed start to get some actionable insights into our learning and teaching and student journeys.

The angst of time, technology and VLE sediment #altc

As an additional #hashtag activities at this year’s #alt conference, participants were asked to use the hashtags #my #altc to highlight their “best bits” of the conference.

I had high hopes for the “are learning technologies fit for purpose?”  session, however despite Lawrie saying he didn’t want this to be a re-hash of “is the VLE debate” of a few years ago, it did seem to turn into a bit of VLE bashing, with the underlying inferences that learning technologies = VLEs and they weren’t fit for purpose.  I did have to have a bit of a rant at the direction of the discussion leading to #my #altc moment

screen shot of twitter message

(which did seem to go down quite well with the rest of the people at the session


To VLE or not to VLE, that seems to always be THE question.  It is, imho, actually the elephant in the room. We have them, so can we just move on please.  It’s how we use them that’s important.  Martin Weller has a good post on the session too, and blame him for the VLE sediment phrase!

As all the keynote speakers either explicitly stated, our digital footprints, data and access are all changing.  Even our so called “learners 2.0” spoke about the ubiquity of technology in their lives but the scary moment when you have to use in “in the real world” in your job, in their case as they were trainee teachers, in the classroom. Confidence levels can swing dramatically from using digital “stuff” for your own purposes to when you have to use it in learning and teaching.  I know in my institution we have many new teaching staff who come directly from professional practice and their knowledge of “learning technology” is very limited, and based on their own experiences. What’s new there, I hear you ask dear reader. We know that all teachers just do what their favourite teachers did.  Well yes, but just now not everyone has had experience of blended, and or fully online learning. They are often still trying to figure it all out as well as cope with a very different working environment.

In the discussion the issue of time came up. Some people think this is a non starter as if someone wants to to do something,then they will make the time. Which is true to an extent. But, if staff member isn’t confident in using whatever their institutional VLE is, then the chances of them being able to find the time with increasing teaching loads gets smaller. New technologies (learning or otherwise) alone won’t solve this. If we want to create digitally confident learners and teachers we need to give time for digital experimentation and failure. A closed, (relatively) safe space such as a VLE is good place to start that.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called “Living with the VLE dictator”, a year on my thoughts are much the same. However, I do see an opportunity to reframe the debate around people digital capabilities and use of (learning) technologies not just the technologies themselves.

Equity, digital by default, data and robots – thoughts from #altc keynotes

The annual #altc conference has yet again left me reeling.  This year it seemed bigger and better than ever, with over 500 delegates meeting in Manchester, with many more joining via the live streams and twitter, over 180 presentations and the addition of robot wars in the #altcgame.

altcrobotsWhen I got home on Thursday night, I did feel a bit jet, or conferenced, lagged. It’s always great to catch up with old friends and make new ones at the conference, but with so much going my mind was spinning and I’m only just starting to make sense of it all.

As ever the keynotes gave contrasting but complimentary views on not just issues around the impact of technology in education, but the impact of new distribution models (often owned by the establishment) on global developments and society.  Whilst Steve Wheeler, very ably assisted by two students, discussed “learner 2.0”, Jonathan Worth added a set of very considered  challenges facing young people today.

Whilst we may have a generation of “digital by default” learners, who as Steve illustrated have their digital footprint created before they are even born, are we in education creating as state of “statutory vulnerability” for our learners? How can we take ownership and control of the right to forget? (see speakingopenly for more on this)  Whilst sharing and connecting are incredibly powerful for learning, the channels of control and ownership of data are increasingly important.

I know that I am in many ways far too ambivalent about my data. For ease of access and connectivity I all too readily tick those terms and conditions boxes.  I don’t think I’m alone in this digital paradox of knowing the dangers and big brother aspects of data ownership, but I go along with it anyway and console myself that the benefits outweigh the risks. Listening to Laura Czerniewcz’s quietly assured keynote on equality, I internally vowed to do more to be part of reclaiming the connected society. I hope that my sharing of thoughts and practice does in some small way add to that.

Again data was central to many of the issues around equity of access to education Laura highlighted. It is the cost of data not the device that is key, particularly in the global South, where increasingly people have mobile phones (and in fact mobile commerce in Africa is far more advanced than in Europe), but the cost of data can exclude many from participating in education. If you can’t afford to access data heavy educational resources then you are excluded. I don’t know if this requires a new type of pedagogy (tbh I think we have enough “gogies”) but it definitely requires more thought in our learning designs to ensure equity of access and experience.

Phil Long the final keynote brought another aspect of data use in education around  learning sciences, technology and learning activities. He questioned why so many existing learning and teaching practices don’t consider what we know about learner motivation and success, and the differences between learning and performance.  It could be that we are at a stage now where there digital tools can actually provide more personalised learning pathways. I’ll need to check out the  Cerego personalised learning tool/service he highlighted. In one of the best online exits ever, Phil’s video connection cut out as he was about to tell us what “the reality is . . .”

You can catch up with all the keynotes via the conference website, all worth another look and my visual notes of each are available on flickr And whilst we need to think about data ownership, sharing data can lead to great visualisations of our community like this one from Tony Hirst.

ALTC network diagram

What Sheila’s seen this week : templates, principles and analytics

This is a probably going to be a bit of a rambling post as I haven’t really blogged for a couple of weeks as it’s been a busy couple of weeks here at Blended Learning Towers.

This year there has been quite a push on developing more fully online programmes. I’ve blogged about how we have been supporting staff through the curriculum design process, and developing our suggested workflows and tools.  We’re now developing this into a series of support materials which we can use and share with more staff, and develop into some form of online staff development.  Just now we’re internally reviewing our “stuff” but I will share it as soon as it is ready for open consumption.

As part of that process we are developing a set of principles for the GCU Online student experience. Following up from their presentation at the recent Eden Conference 2015 proceedings, I was able to catch up with Nelson Jorge from TUDelpht to discuss their approaches to staff CPD and online course production. They also have a set of principles which they are now starting to use as part of their evaluation process. They are a bit ahead of us, and have a dedicated unit supporting online developments, as well as a process for staff to get time off “normal” teaching duties, we don’t have that – yet. As always it was great to share with like minded colleagues and have the comfort that we are all facing the same issues of lack of time and resources.

A recurring theme for us around online developments has been templates. <sigh> Templates are tricky, some of people are very keen on them; more often than not  as they seem them as a quick solution. However as you well know dear reader, it’s not that simple. We do have a default template in a sense in our VLE with our standard menu, and  Blackboard does provide an extensive set of pedagogically based teaching styles templates too. However staff have the freedom and flexibility to structure their modules as they see fit.  What we are trying to do is encourage a team design approach so that there is consistency of naming conventions and approaches across programmes. In that way templates naturally evolve.  As ever consistency really comes down to planning, and that needs time . . .

As the new semester draws nearer, we’re having more discussions with colleagues about trying new approaches in their modules which is great. We have a number of programmes that have very large modules (over 600 students) so I was really interested in these two posts from Fiona Saunders at Manchester on her reflections on large class teaching and designing assessments that are equitable, meaningful and manageable. Fiona makes some excellent points particularly about equity in large class scenarios.

Yesterday we met with Paul Bailey and Niall Sclater about the Jisc Effective Analytics programme.  Our work in learning analytics had stalled due to changes in our senior management and lack of CIO. However with our new CIO and IT Director now in place it looks like we will be moving ahead in this area and be part of the Jisc pilot. So look out for more posts around that.

And finally, I am now officially a jolly, good (HEA) Fellow.  I originally submitted for Senior Fellow, which I always knew was going to be a bit of a challenge, mainly because of my lack of actual teaching practice and slightly non traditional career path. And the feedback I got did confirm that. I also think my case studies weren’t focused enough on institutional impact. They were more based on work and experiences before I started here.  So after feedback from my initial submission I resubmitted for Fellow status and now have a nice shiny certificate.

Picture of HEA certificate