New Job

As a result of a mini restructure in the CELT my job, the Senior Learning Technologist, will cease to exist in a few weeks. That was a little disconcerting when I found out, but I am thankful to have been slotted into a new role in the new structure at the same grade, so on the 1st of August I will become the new Learning Technology Coordinator for Learning Materials Development. Longest. Job title. Ever.

What it means in practice is that my role has effectively been split into two, and there is going to be another role at the same level with responsibility for managing the VLE. The team is also being split, and I’ll have two people working on learning materials with the third learning technologist working with the VLE coordinator. In reality there will continue to be a lot of cross working within the team, especially until the VLE coordinator is appointed, but I’m positive about the possibilities the new structure offers. I can make something of this new position both for myself, to push my career in the right direction, and for the university to support our drive into new areas of independent distance learning by working with academic teams to produce appropriate high quality, pedagogically sound content.

Cyber Security and Data Protection

Strangely enough, on the day that GDPR came into effect the University released a compulsory online module on Cyber Security and Data Protection for all staff. I procrastinated so only completed it today, with the excuse that I had already attended a number of briefings on GDPR over the past couple of months. It was fine, as far as these things go, but I didn’t really learn anything new. As would be expected of someone in my industry I’m already well versed in issues such as privacy, malware, hacking, password security, etc.

In Defence of the Open University

While every university claims to be unique and special, the Open University truly stands out. The OU alone accepts students regardless of prior qualifications and at any time of life, and until recently was fairly unique in providing all of its courses as part time, distance learning, allowing students to get a university level education while balancing work and family life. It is one of those unique, fabulous, and brave institutions that define our country, and it’s my alma mater, so seeing what’s been happing over the past few months and years has been particularly hurtful.

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people the OU’s given a second change to, having had to leave school at 15 before completing my Highers. When I started to put my life back together in my early twenties one of the first and best things I did was start studying again through the OU, moving from 10 credit ‘Openings’ courses to undergraduate diploma, degree, and finally Masters in 2016. Over ten years of study, all part time while working full time, and paying for each course as it went, avoiding debt. This was only possible because I was able to squeak in the completion of my undergraduate degree before the 2012 changes to student fees.

That change, which trebled student ‘top-up’ fees to ¬£9,000 per year was disastrous for the Open University in particular, and part time study in general, because it was founded on the premise of full time study for people leaving school. The needs of part time learners and mature students were largely ignored. The government complacently claimed that it would be fine as part time students were for the first time being given access to loans via the Student Loans Company on the same basis as full time students, but they were warned that this wouldn’t be the case; that part time and mature students would be more averse to acquiring such a huge debt burden due to other responsibilities – their homes and families.

Furthermore, an earlier change made in 2007, under a Labour government shamefully, withdrew funding from students studying for a second degree at the same level, making it much harder for people to retrain and change careers later in life. This was another group of students whom the OU excelled at supporting.

The result of this has been utterly and depressingly predictable. Part time study across the UK has plummeted with the Open University taking a particularly heavy hit. This is in turn having a massive impact on their revenue, staff and programmes have been cut in response, and student satisfaction is diving. The former Vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, had to resign earlier in April following a failed attempt at making further cuts and an unfortunate and distasteful comment about the nature of OU lecturers’ work. That remark aside, it’s a little harsh to blame Peter Horrocks for the OU’s current woes. He was, after all, only attempting to save the institution as best he thought he could in the face of government policy and the marketisation agenda.

The government’s hand-wringing response to this situation is laughable, with no acknowledgement that it is their own policies that have directly brought about this situation. The fee review announced in February fails, once again, to consider the needs of part time students so it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve anything. The review seems to be in response to Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, something that a Conservative government could never possibly do. The review is unlikely to accomplish anything other than tinkering at the edges, possibly introducing subject variable fees which will likely result in the further devaluing of the already heavily hit humanities. After all, no Tory government wants a well-educated and critically thinking population who might question them.

I think optimistically the best result for the Open University now is for it to be recognised as the uniquely valuable institution it is, and that a separate method of funding is made available to it. On a larger scale, it would be wonderful, even if it is wishful thinking, to pause and challenge the neoliberal dogma that the free market is the solution to all problems. A university education, and a well educated society has its own intrinsic value. For more thoughts on how the OU could be saved, see Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller’s blog post in Times Higher Education.

Piktochart and Academic Posters

health_profile_wakanda

Adding to my many niche specialisms, I seem to have become infographic and poster girl. It’s a rubbish super hero name tbh, but not a bad niche. I’ve done a couple of sessions recently that were very mixed experiences. The first, if I’m honest, wasn’t good at all, but the one I did on Tuesday went down a treat. The difference? The venue. The first time around I was teaching in a funny semi-open access area we have in one of our buildings which has banks of computers in long rows. It’s loud, it’s hot, and even with me shouting at the top of my voice the people at the back couldn’t hear me. That meant I was having to walk up and down, repeating things to different groups of students which meant getting them all at the same place was nearly impossible. It was so bad that the academic and I decided to do a re-run which was on Tuesday, this time ensuring that we booked a proper computer room. What a difference it made. You could see, and hear, things clicking into place for the students. It was incredibly satisfying, and goes to show the power of providing the right environment which is conducive to learning.

What I was teaching was how to use Piktochart to create infographics which could then be used as part of an academic poster. The students’ brief was to create something similar to the country profiles used by the New Internationalist magazine, but with an emphasis on health. My example used Wakanda for topical, pop-culture fun. It’s a little rough, terribly plagiarised, and I made up all the stats, but it served it’s purpose well. The poster template itself is a PowerPoint template from Poster Presentations, a cracking little resource I wish I had known about a few years ago instead of creating my own.

This was to level 6 sociology students and more than one commented on how useful the tool was and how they wish they had been taught it in their first year as they could have used it in other work. It was great feedback, and I strongly suspect that the programme leader is indeed going to build this into the programme at an earlier stage in future. At which point, to my mind, instead of providing ad-hoc sessions directly to students, what I’ll do is teach the programme team who can then build it into their teaching.

Introduction to British Sign Language

bsl_sonya

Ah, some proper CPD! An intense three hour introduction to deaf awareness and British sign language taught by Robin Herdman with the aid of two interpreters, and a welcome change from the usual half hour webinar with a salesperson which I seem to have done a lot of lately.

The awareness aspect alone was packed. Important snippets I hastily noted are that BSL is the 4th officially recognised language in the UK, that it is used by 125,000 adults in the UK, though there are 11 million deaf or hard of hearing people in the country, that it has a different grammar from English, that it differs significantly from American sign language which is partially derived from French sign language, that BSL has regional dialects, particularly with numbers and colours, that evidence of the use of sign language in the UK can be traced as far back as 650 CE, and that deaf teachers and interpreters are in increasingly short supply, which has consequent effects on deaf people being able to access education, health and social care.

From the practical side of the session I learned that lip reading is very ineffective, with only around a 30% comprehension rate, the remaining 70% being guess work from context. Therefore BSL is much preferred. I learned the importance of facial expressions and non-manual features, a number of phrases for basic communication, and, in theory, the alphabet. There are some nice hooks in the alphabet which gives me hope that I’ll remember most of it a few months down the line, such as the vowels which correspond to each finger – ‘a’ being your thumb and ‘u’ your pinky – and the ‘s’, ‘n’, and ‘y’ from my name.

Panopto Demonstration

Joined a web meeting in which a representative from Panopto demonstrated their lecture capture system as this is another area of interest for us currently. I already have some experience with Panopto from a pilot programme at Northumbria University a few years ago.

Using pretty much any standard webcam, Panopto can record lectures or workshops and the recording can be combined with a presentation in a web-based video editor. It can also be used for recording someone in front of their computer, much like the tool in the content editor of Canvas. Videos are stored on a private YouTube style repository which could potentially replace our existing media library, and video feeds can be live casted which is also something we use our media library for. One feature I don’t recall from my prior experience is the ability for students to add their own notes at specific time stamps which I like the idea of, and there is what was claimed to be a universal search function for any word or phrase spoken or shown on screen. I wonder if that has been tested with the unique range of accents we have in these parts.

ALT Annual Survey Results 2017

The results of ALT’s 2017 Annual Survey have now been released. Unsurprisingly interest in VLEs, content management systems, and eAssessment remains extremely high. I like looking at the changes more. Assistive tech, web conferencing, and collaborative tools all growing areas.

Interest in social networking on the wane. Interesting. Will social networks one day be regarded as some strange phenomenon that gripped people for a couple of decades? I’m seeing more and more disengagement on, well, social media mostly. But is that because I’m writing and reading about that kind of thing lately? Oh the paradox!

ALT Accessibility Webinar

Joined the ALT South webinar on online learning materials and accessibility, in which Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre‚Äč at the University College of Estate Management, presented a case study of their experience in adapting online learning materials to improve accessibility for students. This was initially in response to students who were having difficulty with particular items within a MOOC, but the lessons learned were adapted and implemented in new templates which were subsequently shared across the institution.

There was some discussion about Blackboard Ally, a tool, or ‘revolutionary product’ according to Blackboard, which can validate the accessibility of learning materials and in many instances convert them into alternative formats such as audio, electronic Braille, and ePub. Ally is available for multiple VLEs, not just Blackboard Learn.

The webinar was also my first experience of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Well, it’s certainly an improvement as it no longer uses Java, unfortunately is uses Flash instead. I would hope that that is a stopgap measure in the transition to HTML5, but with Blackboard who knows. In keeping with the theme of the webinar, there was mention of a feature in Collaborate Ultra which allows an individual to enter live closed captions. That is a nice feature.

Antisocial Media


Placebo’s ‘Too Many People’, anthem for the Facebook generation

I’ve started to notice myself becoming disenfranchised and disillusioned with social media, both in terms of how I interact with it and the effect it’s having on me personally, and what it’s doing to our society as a whole.

Like many in education I was an early adopter, and fan, of Twitter. It’s was the anti-Facebook at a time when I still wasn’t on Facebook. New, exciting, open, posts were deliberately short and sweet and you got them in a simple, clear chronological timeline. But as it got bigger and more popular it started filling with bots, fake accounts and became a haven for the extreme right due to the lax and variable application of its own rules and, of course, the disgraceful impunity given to Trump to spread his hatred and fearmongering. The gradual change to an algorithmic feed annoyed me, but I understand the reasons for that, as I do the logic behind the more recent increase to the character limit. I’m not sold on the ability to thread a series of Tweets though, and taken together all of these things have made the platform lose the brevity that was part of Twitter’s initial appeal. Seeing the word ‘thread’ proclaimed in a Tweet has come to fill me with dread as what could be an interesting discussion is shoehorned into a bunch of 280 character chunks which is harder to read and follow than a blog post or an article, which is what they should have been in the first place.

I did eventually succumb to Facebook as a matter of convenience, just like a quarter of the planet has. I never trusted Facebook though, and kept a tight rein on my privacy settings and was careful about what I posted and shared. Nevertheless, I came to like it well enough until recently when I’ve found myself quietly groaning at the banality of so much of what I’m seeing on my newsfeed. I can’t place when exactly this happened, but I suspect it’s something that has been triggered as the number of my ‘friends’, groups and pages has grown. Like Twitter, Facebook now has its own wider problems with bots, fake news, hate speech, and the inconsistent application of its rules. A recent post by one of Facebook’s senior managers did a quite excellent job of identifying its various problems, for which kudos, but then shamelessly places the burden of responsibility for change on its users, meaning it’s not going to actually do anything. To paraphrase, the solution to Facebook’s problems is to use Facebook more.

From Facebook to Instagram, which I joined more voluntarily and like for its ability to push posts into Twitter and Facebook. It is perhaps because it’s the most recent platform I’ve joined that it’s the one that least troubles me. LinkedIn I’ve been on for years as a matter of professional etiquette, but it’s a quagmire of corporate bullshit that I do my best to ignore. Similarly, Google enrolled me to Google+ whether I wanted to be on it or not, though fortunately no-one uses that. And finally, I do have my own YouTube channel (again, thanks Google!) which I use to back-up my dodgy gig vids more than anything else.

The bots, the spread of hate speech, and the fake news is one thing, but there is now an increasing body of research showing tangible harm being done to the psychological development of the generation growing up who’ve never not known a world without social media. I’ve read more than one piece linking social media and smartphone use with increasing incidence of depression in children and teenagers. Part of the problem is how these services and devices use push notifications to constantly update you about new content, something called digital distraction.

That’s definitely part of my problem. I hate all such notifications and pop-ups and like to clear them straight away. My inbox at work has nothing unread in it, and at any one time there’s likely only to be around a half dozen emails flagged for future work as they can’t be done immediately for whatever reason. This in contrast to a colleague who mocks me with his 6,968 unread emails (at the time of writing), though he claims it’s okay because only 356 of them are on the work account.

So, having identified the problem, what actions have I taken to address it? The big change I’ve made is to turn off notifications for all social media apps on my phone. I’ve had them off for LinkedIn pretty much since I joined, and only check it when I have something to update, which is a couple of times a year, or when the app gets updated (to clear the notification that the app has been updated… I know, I’m a lost cause). For Twitter and Facebook, I have left on the badge icon, otherwise, knowing myself, I would end up checking them to see if some such has been commented on or whatever. Finally, I’ve started being a bit more critical when I am scrolling and actively unfollowing and muting accounts that I don’t get something from.

The result of these changes is that I’m using these services far less often, checking them at times of my choosing, and when I need a distraction from whatever I’m doing, instead of going to one or other endless feed I’m choosing something more useful like Memrise or picking up a book for a little while.

Twitter has actually been the easiest to let go, and I’m now only accessing it once or twice a day. Facebook is a little more regular, but I’ve always gotten a lot more notifications there so the badge icon is pretty much always on. I’ve noticed an improvement in my battery life! And it would seem that I have upset the algorithms. Phantom notifications have become a thing – the icon is lit, but nothing is there when I check, and I’m getting many more irrelevant notifications trying to suck me back in. I feel like I’m seeing a lot more ads in Twitter, and have even had ‘recommended tweets’ appearing in the notifications tab itself. That, I found out how to turn off thankfully!

I haven’t talked about the possibility of quitting, because I haven’t seriously considered it. What I wanted to do was assert boundaries on their intrusion into my life and in so doing establish a healthier relationship, though I have plenty of friends who have quit or, especially for younger people, never joined in the first place. This is not a trend unique to my peer group either. For me, Twitter is too useful in my professional practice and, like LinkedIn, and indeed this blog, it’s something that’s just sort of expected of someone in my line of work. Facebook for its part has become my primary means of discovering gigs, and is still great for managing and organising events. So, in essence what I’ve done is reduce my use of these services to their core functionalities, what they’re good at and were initially built for – Facebook for event management and Twitter for news.

I’ll leave with one last article, this in the New York Times ostensibly about the Bitcoin bubble, but interesting for its insight into how Facebook became the de facto standard for establishing identity on the internet, and how the blockchain could provide a better, more democratic solution.