Everything In Balance

Martin Weller has written some excellent posts on disruption and disruptive innovation. In his most recent blog post on disruption and the unenlightenment he argues that “knowledge of any area itself is viewed as a reason not to trust someone.” I’ve come across this myself, or more critically I’ve seen others placing a higher value upon knowledge which is unencumbered by context, so for example in our own environment having business acumen is treated with higher value than having knowledge of the higher education sector. This has been reflected over the past decade in Job Descriptions and recruitment processes in HE and also applies to politics where Farage and Trump are seen to have more value through coming from outside the political system. Within higher education this has resulted in a rash of appointments of people from outside the sector to senior positions.

Yin_yang.svgThis is not necessarily a bad thing. I see the higher education sector like an ecosystem and too much inbreeding within too small a gene pool will lead to stagnation and mutation  – in HE this can be seen as people adopting confirmation bias since meetings with the same cohort provide no novel insight or new interpretations on the original plan. On the other hand too much migration and churn will lead to a different but equally serious problem where specialist knowledge is lost to the organisation and sector and therefore decisions are not based on a full evaluation of evidence. The past influences the future so there is a balance to be struck. When you get new people and talent into an organisation you provide opportunities for cultural advancement and change. Ideas can move across domains in a way that allows things to happen. People ask questions like “why can’t you do it like that?” and you realise that because you had issues previously you have mentally blocked off an opportunity.

As an example I have had some of my richest conversations recently with Rosie Jones the new Director of Library Services. In her induction we discussed using gaming approaches in the workplace to stimulate new thinking as we both have backgrounds in serious gaming.

animal_crossing

Animal Crossing 

I have now begun applying some of these approaches in events that I am facilitating for Leadership in Digital Innovation. I wouldn’t have been able to make the mental leap without her fresh perspective on some of the organisational issues, adopting what Dave Coplin might describe as non-linear thinking.

 

My point is that stimulation is a good thing as it can build the conditions for the new system to emerge – but disruption by it’s nature means that, as Martin describes it, “there is no collaboration, working alongside, improving here”. It’s what Bernard Stiegler describes in his interview How to Survive “Disruption” as “a form of widespread dispossession of knowledge, of life skills and indeed of livelihood across Europe through the rapid political, social and technological changes to work and everyday life.”

Crucially for both education and politics we must seek to understand, value, and then challenge the current system in order to create the system we need.

 

Effective social teaching and learning

Eric and I introduce the group to our social media session (That’s me on the right) – Image courtesy of Ian Roddis .

eric

Several months of planning, and a few nights waking up in a sweat, have led to a successful one day social media event which I co-chaired with colleagues from Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) on “Embedding Social Media to effectively support OU learners”.

There were two reasons that it’s taken so long to arrange:

  1. I wanted to introduce external perspectives to the topic to refresh our thinking. To this end my fantastic co-chair Beccy Dresden got in touch with Eric Stoller and we brought him to work with us. You’ll get a sense of his work from his blog. The thing I most like about Eric is his passion and enthusiasm for effective knowledge of, and use of, social media (more on that later).
  2. I wanted to tackle this problem at three levels in order to get actionable outputs and from both a top-down and bottom-up perspective, by that I mean (i) the Vice Chancellor, (ii) the people at Director/AD level responsible for learning & teaching, communications and marketing and (iii) the people who work directly in support of academic practice around module production and presentation.

I structured the day to begin with a conversation with the Vice Chancellor about the Open University and use of social media for a variety of strategic purposes, then we held a wider conversation which I chaired with a group of senior OU staff, from both academic and non-academic areas on “Embedding social media to effectively support OU learners facilitated by Eric Stoller”, then in the afternoon Beccy chaired sessions with academic support staff which began with a Keynote by Eric followed by parallel sessions around Social media for professional development with Eric and Lawrie Phipps (JISC) and Exploring the possibilities for social media within distance learning material hosted by Beccy Dresden and Steve Parkinson from Learning and Teaching Solutions (OU) and concluded with a plenary/roundup.

I began the morning session by introducing four provocations:

Provocation 1 – “Do we need a social media strategy for learning?”
Provocation 2 -“How and when do we embed social media practice within our modules and across the curriculum?”
Provocation 3 – “What can we learn from others?”
Provocation 4 – “Can we use social media to bridge the informal/formal divide?”

We then has an introductory chat about our different perspectives with social media and Eric followed this up by giving a talk which went into more detail starting with why does social media matter?

 

We kept the presentations short to allow plenty of time for discussion and the session has a lot of stimulating and interesting perspectives thanks in large part to Eric’s facilitation. Eric asked me before the session what type of conversation should we expect “..sometimes it’s a conversation about org culture and daring to dream/experiment that is needed…sometimes it’s more about choosing which tools are relevant right now and how to apply them in strategic / worthwhile ways.” I said that it was a bit of both and that turned out to be the case. Eric was also interested in the variety of perspectives and knowledge, for example some people in the room, such as Ian Fribbance, have used social media effectively in their practice for some time. The OU has some examples of great use of social media within pockets of the curriculum, and indeed for more general tips on best practice with social media such as the social media toolkit produced by Communications, but there are also pockets of skepticism around social media and particularly about its relevance within formal learning and teaching. In fact one person at the meeting had never used social media and didn’t want to try it, to which Eric exclaimed “This is 2016! – I’ll not force you to use social media but we will talk later!”. The OU is also a place where practice is diverse and where OU academics don’t necessarily engage directly with students but that aspect is managed through tutors (or ALs) so there can be a disconnect.

Here are my key takeaways from the session:

  1. We aren’t using social media consistently and effectively to support and facilitate our discourse within the Open University and that has  consequences for our engagement with our learners and more widely within our teaching communities.
  2. Things are improving. Examples of use of social media which have in the past been treated as ‘renegade’ are now being seen as exemplars of good practice, which is encouraging. e.g. the use of FaceBook within Social Science to support 26,000 learners
  3. It sounds like assessment may be the key to unlocking a bit of a cultural shift towards using social media more effectively…that and the push by certain individuals at the senior level is crucial. (this was echoed by Eric)
  4. We don’t need a formal strategy (considered to be constricting) and LTS are considering how to build a “manifesto” already as a grass roots approach, so what the group thought would be most valuable was an enabling framework within which people could experiment with optionally using social media within their contexts.
  5. We need to ensure that academic staff are developed and supported to be digital scholars, which includes using social media effectively, so we see a need to build this into the “academic excellence” objective that is currently being formulated.
  6. We need to ensure that we consider appropriate platforms and risks when using social media so we see a need to build these elements into the “leadership in digital innovation” objective that is currently being formulated.
  7. We need to provide greater support for ‘grass roots’ initiatives and to remove barriers to adoption, this includes advocacy at senior level but also enabling through joined up thinking and grass roots initiatives such as the special interest group for social media.
  8. We need to continue to engage with external perspectives to help us to see how we compare, and to ensure that we are leading the way around social learning.

Eric is reporting back his thoughts to the Vice Chancellor, and we are now exploring how we can work with the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching Innovation), the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research and Academic Strategy) and the Head of Digital Engagement in particular to form an action plan to take this work forward – with thanks to Simon Horrocks, Beccy Dresden and The LTS team in particular who are supporting this work and considering the next steps.

Watch this space.

My highlights of 2015


“Don’t procrastinate” – that was my only resolution for the New Year as I started 2015. I began the year by moving to Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) which was a big decision as it was a huge change for me to leave behind the research part of my job to focus on the big challenge of working in the learning and teaching area to create the TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) sub-unit of LTS.
Over the past year we’ve created a sub-unit with 44 extremely dedicated and committed staff from different parts of LTS who have come together to cover four TEL areas which complement each other. These areas are Learning Innovation, Learning Environments, TEL Design and Online Student Experience. All areas are supported by evidence which is gathered through student engagement or by working with areas from across the Open University responsible for data and analytics.

 

…it has been extremely hard work. TEL was created during a change process which saw the OU cut costs and reduce staffing across all units. This meant that we needed to adjust plans in March to take account of the financial constraints. TEL was also created during a period when we could not afford to reduce productivity which meant that people were expected to “double hat”, doing both their previous role and their new TEL role in parallel. I have huge admiration of the team and unit for what has been achieved. We’ve run Hack Days, drop-in events and worked with people across the OU to deliver a series of “Quick Win” projects to accelerate priority activities for TEL and we’ve also collaborated with the IET Learning Design team to create a joint series of Special Interest Group events to stimulate discussion about TEL across the organisation. We have created new websites including the Learning Innovation site. We have introduced a TEL design process across OU module production and have begun to explore co-creation, live student feedback, activity design, workload consistency issues and many more.

tel-cloud

Across the wider Open University the new OpenTEL Priority Research Area has been created which complements TEL, the research feeding through into practice.

As well as the organisational achievements I’ve also had some personal achievements during 2015. I became Acting Director of TEL in May and have enjoyed a year sitting in the “hot seat” driving the work of the unit. I’m now looking forward to taking on a new challenge in 2016 and to passing on the leadership of TEL to Mark Nichols who takes the reins in February.

I have achieved Senior Fellowship status with the Higher Education Academy through an OpenPAD inquiry process. My personal inquiry was my reflection on delivering services for the Open Science Lab (now called Open STEM Lab). I really enjoyed the process of reflection. I would encourage colleagues in HE to go through this process as it is extremely valuable to improving practice across the sector.

downloadI’ve also written a book chapter for a Routledge International publication, again on my work on iSpot and the Open Science Lab, in particular about using a participatory approach and design based research methodology to develop the mobile optimized experience – The book, published today, is called Mobile Learning and STEM: Case studies in practice  (a good read – especially chapter six!). Janice Ansine and Kevin Mcleod helped me to get the chapter in shape. The lead author role gave me a new found admiration for the work of my academic colleagues as it has been very challenging fitting the writing around the other aspects of my job.

I’ve really enjoyed the friendships I’ve made during 2015 and these will stay with me for life. I’m looking forward to the changes to the the portfolio and to enabling innovation across the University.

 

 

…I haven’t been procrastinating.

My next blog post will be about my thoughts on the external environment, the culture for innovation and the challenges ahead!

Acquisitions and Mergers

I have been reading with interest the posts about Blackboard’s recent aquisition of MoodleRooms. There’s a good article by Christopher Dawson about it for ZDNet Education. The creation of an Open Source Services Group headed up by our old pal well known by the OU crowd – Charles “Chuck” Severance of Sakai fame. I think he’ll do a great job and he is upbeat about the Blackboard finally listening to his message about ” think[ing] more broadly about the LMS market”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one however that feels a little uncomfortable about the acquisition (and possible merger?) of these. The quote by Martin Dougiamas is interesting

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry…but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I’m happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue…participating in the community…and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have.”

I think it’s a very interesting move by Blackboard. It reminds me of the Microsoft approach of the 90’s where they saw best-of-breed and acquired them to be merged into their ‘market leading’ technology group.

My feeling is that if all the organisations can remain pure to their ideals and founding principles then this should be treated as a positive move to financially support the onward development of the products and services. There is a little demon on my shoulder thought that’s whispering in my ear that Blackboard are not being altruistic in this venture. They are owned by a private equity firm. It’s a good move for them, it’s hedging their bets. It’s playing the percentages. It may however reduce consumer choice down the line.

Overall I’m not quite as upbeat about this as Christopher Dawson. I see this as a power-play by one of the giants in the LMS arena however a saving grace might be the fact that we’ve got a good guy in Chuck and a mature Open Source Community. If they don’t like a product they’ll build a better one.

I’m not for a proliferation of LMS’s but I am pro choice and I think we should be able to have interoperable systems and services without having to buy whole product suites. If Dr Chuck can manage to make that happen then I’ll buy him a drink. Possibly two.

Community Spirit

footbridge over canal

Where I live...

I live in a small community in a historic and picturesque village on the outskirts of Milton Keynes.

The community has gone through up and downs, and most notably when a local man Paolo Sicorello disappeared earlier this year, he was well known in the community and, for example, went to school with my wife so most people knew of him or his family. I was amazed by how quickly the whole community got behind the search for him. There was a Facebook campaign and groups out organising search parties, with the help of the police, again coordinated through Facebook.

Eventually he was found dead in the canal, he had fallen in and drowned. His Facebook campaign became a memorial site and there were some absolutely wonderful stories and heartfelt outpouring on the site which I think his family really appreciated.

Recently I’ve again seen some of that community spirit as we’ve had problems with a group of travellers. These are not the nice sort of travellers. These are the damaging property, thieving, fighting in public and littering type of traveller. I know the other type exist as I spent some time with courteous travelling folk in my distant youth. These ones are a breed apart.

Anyhow the travellers moved in and the community started to find things going missing and property being destroyed.

poniesWe have two ponies which graze on local paddock land owned by the Parks Trust and the travellers took particular interest in the animals. They started marking up the signs on the bridleways as if they were planning to use these as a way to get to the paddocks at night. Another horse owner found a plait in the mane of her horse. A sure sign that travellers are interested in stealing it as they use the plaits to find the animals at night.

The good thing was how the community seemed to rally together. People informed local land owners straight away and the manor park lands ware closed to the public. People went out checking on their walks for anything out of the ordinary and kept watch on each others property.

The police were informed within hours of the travellers arriving to a new site (they kept switching sites but staying in our area). Community Support officers patrolled the area and the parks trust rangers also did patrols of the paddocks. We even had local security firm come and agree to do patrols of the paddocks for free and put up signs on the gates to deter criminals.

Of course the measures were not infallible and we did have a chain a padlock stolen. Thieves actually broke down the fencing to remove the padlock and chain from next to the gate. The parks trust rangers thought it was an attempt to test how easily they could break in and how quickly we’d respond. The rangers phoned around and arranged for contractors to replace broken items and we texted them the crime reference number after we telephoned the police and the parks trust sent the police the images of the damage via their mobile to use to support a criminal damage claim as well as theft if the criminal is ever caught.

Since then nothing further has happened. The parks trust are considering installing CCTV surveillance on that area if there’s any further trouble and the police are using the local paper to inform people to keep a look out and raise awareness. The travellers have now been moved on by the police so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t return.

I do love the humanity I see displayed around me – both on-line where digital media affords different and new types of community interaction and in the real world where people use ubiquitous and ambient technology, mobile phones,digital cameras and text alerts to help the community. This type of community has existed for thousands of years but the wonder is how the newer technology has become an integral element of the community spirit.

Personae gratae

A group of us who are involved in developing the future learning system plans for the Open University are using a range of techniques taken from “User Centred Design” and User Experience (UX) to help us create the future systems for the OU and also to explain the complexity of the systems developments to senior management in a way that is easily understood and powerful. I wanted to share some of these techniques that we’re using without going into any of the detail which may be business sensitive.

man with hammer image

First of all what we’re doing is using a combination of Personas (some people suggest personae as the plural but I’ll use personas to describe these) and scenarios. There are many websites and blog posts going back years which talk about the power of personas and scenarios to design and development. JISC have used it within their design workshops and they’re used in different ways by different groups, for example here’s a post on “Web Design from scratch” by Ben Hunt which describes their use in design.

We’re using these in a slightly different way than for design but rather to describe areas of functionality to be developed to meet particular needs. In the persona development we adopted a range of persona’s that were created by the Online Communications team to describe target users for OU websites.

Here’s an example snippet of one of the persona’s to help explain them…

Jason
Gamer
Age/personal:  18, lives in Glenrothes with his Mum
Job:  Works in Dixon’s part-time
Education:  Highers
Studying aim: Degree in Computing/IT
Online likes:  Interaction, multimedia,
customisation and iPhone apps
Web games, chats, texts; surfs fast, but without
direction

Jason?

We use a set of personas to describe a range of target users and they test the system through a typical use case. We also have some high level scenarios to describe the depth of a particular system in supporting users from end-to-end. Scenarios in our case describe the environmental elements not possible easily through personas, so our scenarios are focused on direction setting and understanding where the OU should be going to meet the demands of new learners. for example we have scenarios based around informal learning becoming prevalent and another scenario around the need for key skills.

Personas are powerful because they:-

  • Allow systems to be developed to meet specific user types
  • Afford consistency of development across different systems
  • Are a useful tool for describing how people will use the services
  • Are useful for testing and benchmarking services against requirement, i.e. are useful for usability and accessibility testing.
Scenarios are powerful to us because they:-
  • Describe the full end-to-end functionality of a system
  • Take socio-economic and other environmental factors into account
  • Set direction of development
  • Describe the strategic value and business benefits

We are using these to map through to a set of “Roadmaps” which describe how we intend to deliver the changes. The roadmaps, programmes and projects within it are along the lines of the JISC P3 model which itself is a variant of PRINCE 2 methodology and therefore well established. The creative bit is how we’re describing this through the combination of personas and scenarios. We have been through this process once before with a programme called RAP (Roadmap Acceleration Programme) where we used a world cafe approach to gathering requirements (see my previous post on Future Learning Systems ). We used the user testing sessions to “validate” the personas against real people to ensure that they’re accurate and complete and the testing informs the system development, this was particularly useful to establish what works in the less clearly defined areas of the roadmap such as the development of Google gadgets through the JISC DOULS project.

The next steps are to build in the marketing knowledge that we have received through consultancy reports on segmentation which can help us plan out which personas we particularly want to target, and  secondly to get areas of the OU to adopt sub-set of the personas and ensure that they refresh them to keep them relevant. We already have some success with this since Student Services have adopted a persona approach to describe the “targeted services” which they want to provide through StudentHome the OU Student portal.

I can’t stress enough though how important it is to have a single coherent set of OU personas. The power comes from system developments being mapped holistically i.e. when values are shared across the organisation about meeting specific user needs and creating, buying or customising systems to meet those needs.

Nevolution

Nevolution = Evolution through networking

Star Trek

Borg - Are we evolving into them?

Since listening to a keynote by Grainne Conole recently at MoodleMOOT I’ve been thinking about the concept of people and technology co-evolving. It’s not that profound a concept really and links to a previous post about the “hidden influence of social networks” we adapt to technology probably more profoundly that the technology adapts to us.

In the case of Twitter this is becoming somewhat of a concern to me because I’m starting to become the type of person who will try to make his posts witty and engaging (perish the thought), this leads to a tendency to exaggerate or enhance. You have this kind of hyper-reality dynamic played out in Twitter where there are the seedlings of truth but couched in the attention grabbing advertising blurb that gets them noticed, you then run the risk of becoming obsessed by ego rather than the topic. It’s not true of all interactions of course, and there is a lot of very good factual information provided without hype, but I’ve been on twitter now for a number of years and it’s only recently that I’ve started noticing the ego-centricity of Twitter.

I think blogging is similarly an egocentric method of communicating and I remember when Martin Weller first encouraged me to blog many years back I was concerned at the time about it being all a bit of an ego massaging exercise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that when I started my blog I tried deliberately to blog about things that I’d refer back to and find useful for me and my work so treated it like a diary and reminder. A “To-Do” of research ideas. I did originally intend to blog about all things but technology is the predominate subject within many of my posts and perhaps it because my “other life” is one I’m still not comfortable in sticking into blog posts because that does seem rather egotistical. I do occasionally do put family stuff up on Facebook.

So that leads me to another evolutionary trend which is that I’ve noticed now that I’m CATEGORISING my online persona and using different media to reflect different parts of myself and to interact in different ways with different groupings of people. In Facebook the club of followers is quite narrow and when people are flagged to me as “mutual friends” that perhaps I should friend, I don’t tend to do that unless I have a close connection with them in the real world.

So Facebook is, for me, only a group of real friends and close colleagues, and where I feel safe to share personal information.

Twitter on the other hand is more like a pub where I have some close friends that I’m out with and where there are various other interesting people who I know or ‘follow’, some of which are celebs and where listening to them is amusing. The pub persona also means that I do a bit of boasting and bragging and ‘hyper-reality’ is the norm.

Blogging for me is that part of me that wants to remember things which I find useful and may also be useful to others, so my use of blogging is a kind of therapeutic method for me to relieve myself of some thought that I’ve been struggling to articulate. It is like revision classes where I’m repeating stuff that I may have mentioned in class (in a tweet or on Facebook) and trying to explain it, mainly to myself, so that I can work out if it’s got any validity.

This persona building is happening constantly and it’s evolving over time. I also have my “linkedIn” and my “academia.edu” and various other elements of myself expressed online.

How much though is the media I’m engaging in changing me? …am I becoming ‘hyper-real’?